Sovereign immunity in Hampton Road is a little-known and archaic concept that governments can use to get out of liability.
It was recently highlighted in Newport News when a driver’s car was hit by a trash truck. In a recent report, WAVY TV spoke to John Cooper of Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers about sovereign immunity.
The special WAVY report considered the case of Newport News resident Mark Mitchell. He told 10 on Your Side he has parked in his neighborhood without incident for a decade.
However, in September a Newport News city trash truck collecting garbage hit and damaged Mitchell’s SUV.
The driver called a supervisor. The supervisor gave him paperwork to submit a claim via the city’s risk management office.
That’s when the issue about Sovereign immunity in Hampton Roads kicked in.
Mitchell assumed everything would be taken care of. However, he received a letter denying his claim a month later.
It said the city department was operating within the scope of its employment. For that reason, the city was able to claim the defense of sovereign immunity.
John Cooper told WAVY reporter Deanna LeBlanc the doctrine dates back to England centuries ago when it was not possible to sue the monarch.
“It harks back to old England when you cannot sue the king,” he said.
John Cooper said the Sovereign immunity defense makes little sense.
Any Hampton Roads city could claim sovereign immunity regardless of if the driver is liable for the damage. That applies to the rest of Virginia.
It may also apply to cases that involve personal injury as well as property damage. For instance, school authorities have claimed sovereign immunity when students are hurt on school buses.
In some cases, however, cities will make payments. In 2012, for example, the City of Virginia Beach paid $500,000 after a homeless man on the beach was killed by a trash truck.
Under the doctrine of Sovereign immunity, the defense can be brought if a city vehicle is performing a government function. For example, a trash truck may be collecting garbage or a police car responding to an accident with its flashing lights and sirens on.
However, if the employee is taking his vehicle to lunch or a police officer is doing routine business, the employee loses the protection of sovereign immunity.
John Cooper said to fight sovereign immunity, a citizen must prove a city employee was grossly negligent. That’s an uphill battle in many cases.
Mark Mitchell gained compensation through his persistence. After his claim was denied by the office of risk management, he submitted his complaint to the Newport News city manager who said the city would pay for his damage.
If you have suffered an injury in an accident in Hampton Roads, please contact our personal injury attorneys.