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Claims Against Government

When a traffic collision involves either a government entity or employee (who is acting in his or her official capacity), those injured are likely to face challenges in pursing compensation.

In other words, it’s difficult – but not impossible – to sue for just compensation.

Boston car accident attorneys at The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman recognize a central factor in these cases is overcoming the assertion of sovereign immunity. This is sometimes referred to as “government immunity.”

Rooted in old English law, the legal doctrine used to be coined “crown immunity,” based on the maxim “rex non potest peccare,” Latin for “The king can do no wrong.”

The idea is that a sovereign entity – today meaning the federal government or the state and those who act on its behalf (i.e., employees) -- cannot commit a legal wrong, and are therefore immune from civil lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

However, there are exceptions in the form of “sovereign immunity waivers.” That is, there are instances in which the government grants exceptions to this rule. Each state provides its own specific waiver of sovereign immunity, and the federal government has its own as well.

Sovereign Immunity Law Waivers

In Massachusetts, those injured in a crash involving a government worker or vehicle will need look to one of two statutes:

Both of these laws are complex, but they essentially lay forth the ground rules for bringing civil action against the government for negligent or reckless acts of employees or government agencies resulting in injury. They specify the timeliness and requirements for notifying the government of litigation, the circumstances under which the government is protected by sovereign immunity and the situations for which the government waives that protection.

One of the most common tort claims against the government is negligent driving resulting in accident causing injury.

Most auto accidents involving government employees stem from emergency situations, such as with:

  • Police cruisers
  • Fire trucks
  • Ambulances

However, they have also been known to involve:

  • Waste management trucks
  • Utility vehicles
  • City buses and trolleys
  • School buses
  • Subway cars

In some cases, federal and state statutes overlap. For example, if a federal agent is involved in a Massachusetts crash, a plaintiff would need to follow federal rules for notifying the government of litigation. However, the case will be heard in Massachusetts and it would be state law that would govern whether the federal agent was at-fault.

Mostly, these claims stem from the actions of state-level employees, as they tend to be more prevalent on Massachusetts roads. So Chapter 258 is the statutory guideline we’ll analyze here.

Who Can Be Held Liable Under Chapter 258?

The law allows public employers to be held liable for the negligent acts of employees who are acting within the scope of their employment.

So these would include:

  • Cities
  • Towns
  • Boards
  • Committees
  • School Districts
  • All departments (assuming they exercise discretion and control over public workers)

However, public employees are personally immune from liability for any personal injury or wrongful death they cause through negligence while that employee was acting in the course and scope of employment. The only exception to this would be liability for an intentional tort. So in other words, unless the worker intended harm to the injured person, he or she likely is not going to be held personally liable for injuries caused. However, his or her employer probably can be.

It’s worth noting independent contractors aren’t employees, and thus the government can’t be held liable for their actions.

Filing a Claim

Notice of intent to file an injury claim against the government has to be done within 30 days of the accident. For this reason, claimants must act quickly if they have been involved in an accident with a public employee or vehicle.

While the statute of limitations on all personal injury claims is three years, a formal complaint can’t actually be filed until a written claim for damages is formally denied in writing by the executive officer of the public employer. If there is no denial within six months, a plaintiff may proceed with his or her claim at that time.

Damage Caps

Massachusetts law caps damages against public employers to $100,000 per plaintiff. However, each individual plaintiff can recover up to $100,000.

So for example, if a school bus negligently crashes into a passenger car with three people in it and all three people are hurt, each individual would be entitled to receive up to $100,000, for a total of $300,000. But if there was only one person in that passenger vehicle, the maximum recovery would be $100,000.

Public employers are also immune from punitive damage or interest payments.

Any judgments against the government would be paid for with taxpayer money, so there is a valid interest in limiting the scope to some extent. However, rather than deter frivolous claims, caps on government payouts have mostly served only to truly harm those who have been most severely injured as a result of government agency or employee negligence.

Immunities

Per section 10 of Chapter 258, cities are immune from liability for:

  • An employee was exercising due care in the execution of a law, regardless of whether the law is valid;
  • Discretionary functions, where employee had discretion in carrying out his or her duty;
  • Intentional torts, where employee committed assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, intentional infliction of mental distress, etc. (Employee in these cases may be held personally liable);
  • Collection of taxes;
  • Inspection of property
  • Fire protection services (i.e., failure to prevent, suppress or contain a fire);
  • Police services (i.e., failure to provide adequate police protection or commission of crimes);
  • Release of custody (i.e., a prisoner, inmate, patient or client from public custody) unless gross negligence is shown;
  • Failure to prevent harm (See Brum v. Town of Dartmouth, 1999, where school was exempt from liability in failing to prevent school shooter from entering grounds and killing a student).

If you have been injured as a result of a Boston accident involving a government employee or government vehicle, please contact a legal team with experience to learn more about your rights.

Contact the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman today for a free and confidential consultation.

Call (617) 367-2900 – NO FEE UNLESS SUCCESSFUL

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