Sovereign immunity is the legal defense available to governmental entities which makes it unlawful to sue them. The concept of sovereign immunity originated long ago and is associated with the idea that "the king can do no wrong."Currently in Pennsylvania, both state agencies (the commonwealth, state police, state universities, SEPTA, etc.) and local agencies (townships, boroughs, municipalities, local police and fire departments, etc.) enjoy limited immunity from civil lawsuits. In addition, when state or local governmental agencies can be sued, the potential recovery is limited, or "capped," by law.
The following are some of the features of state and local Sovereign Immunity:
Commonwealth parties are generally immune from lawsuits. However, the immunity is not applicable to the following common situations, meaning that an injured person can sue a commonwealth agency for injuries relating to:
o Motor vehicle accidents If a Commonwealth party causes a motor vehicle accident, there is no immunity.
o Medical-professional liability There is no immunity for injuries caused by doctors, dentists, nurses or other health care personnel employed by the commonwealth who cause injury.
o Commonwealth real estate Under certain circumstances, the commonwealth remains legally responsible for failing to correct or properly maintain its real estate.
o Potholes The commonwealth can be held liable for personal injuries (but not property damage) caused by potholes or sinkholes, but only if the injured party can prove that the Commonwealth had actual written notice of the condition a sufficient time prior to the accident to have corrected the condition.
o Liquor store The Commonwealth remains liable for injuries caused by serving minors, visibly intoxicated persons or others who it is illegal to serve under the Liquor Code.
o Animals The commonwealth remains liable for injuries caused by its animals like police dogs or horses.
In legal actions against the commonwealth, there is a limit, or "cap" on the amount of the recovery of $250,000 for any person and $1,000,000 for any single accident.
Like the Commonwealth, local agencies enjoy immunity, but it is waived for the following types of cases:
o Vehicle liability If a local agency party causes a motor vehicle accident, there is no immunity.
o Real property Under certain circumstances, the local agency remains legally responsible for failing to correct or properly maintain its real estate.
o Trees, traffic controls, street lighting, sidewalks, utility service facilities and streets
The agency can be held liable for personal injuries, but only if it can be shown that it had actual notice of the condition or could reasonably be expected to know of the condition and had enough time prior to the accident to fix it. nAnimals The agency remains liable for injuries caused by its animals.
Damages recoverable against a local agency are capped at $500,000 per accident. In addition, injured parties may not make claims for pain and suffering, unless the injury results in death, a permanent loss of a body function, permanent disfigurement or permanent dismemberment.
o Tim Rayne is a partner in the full-service law firm of MacElree Harvey, Ltd. which has 27 attorneys in offices located in Kennett Square and West Chester, and Centreville, Del. Tim focuses his law practice in personal injury and civil litigation law, primarily helping people who have been injured in accidents deal with insurance companies. Tim can be reached at 610-840-0124.