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What Is Qualified Immunity?


Anytime there is a report of police brutality, there is always talk about eliminating what is known as qualified immunity. But what is qualified immunity, and how does it affect a personal injury case?

A Simple Concept

Although normally spoken about in relation to police actions, qualified immunity is a concept that applies to any government official. Recently, there has been talk about how qualified immunity may even make it difficult for parents of injured children to sue schools, teachers or school boards.

In concept, qualified immunity is simple. It says that if there is no case or law that says whether something a  government official does is illegal, and a reasonable person wouldn’t know that a certain behavior or action is illegal, that official cannot be held liable for the behavior. A reasonable person in the same situation as the officer or government official, must have known that the behavior was illegal, for the official to be sued for conduct on the job.

The logic is that government officials—and particularly, police—are out in the street, and they cannot be expected to make on-the-spot decisions about legality, where there is no already existing law or case that says what they are doing is legal or not.

Immunity Can Be Difficult in Application

The problem with qualified immunity however, is that to some extent, every personal injury case or abuse case is different. Because of that, every case could, conceivably, get immunity.

Let’s take an example where police hold a suspect on the ground too long, and the officer’s knee on the suspect’s neck suffocates the suspect, killing him. The officer is later convicted. Fast forward a year, and another officer puts his knee on another suspect’s head, while the suspect’s head is laying on his car, and the suspect dies.

Are these two cases the same? On the one hand, they are—an officer putting his knee on a suspect, killing him. That means the officer should be liable. But on the other hand, an argument can be made that in one instance, the suspect was on the ground, and in the other, the suspect was in the car. In one case, the officer’s knee was on the suspect’s neck, and in the other, the knee was on the suspect’s head.

Are these meaningless, trivial differences? If so, then the officer is (or could be held to be) liable. But if not-if these details truly make the second situation different than the first one—then the officer is immune, and thus cannot be sued under qualified immunity.

Every Case is Different

As you can see, almost every case is arguably different, which leads to many cases of abuse, brutality, negligence or violence caused by government officials, to be immune. Qualified immunity doesn’t just immunize officials from being sued for injuries. Until the law changes, qualified immunity will continue to be a problem for victims who sue government officials.

Have you been injured by a government official or agency?  Schedule a consultation with the Tampa personal injury attorneys at Barbas, Nunez, Sanders, Butler & Hovsepian today to see what your rights may be, and how to get compensation for your injuries.

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