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Governmental Immunity May Affect Your Right to Recover After an Accident

Brandon Evans   |  September 29, 2014   |  

Imagine for a moment that it is winter time in North Carolina. After a particularly nasty storm, you slip and fall on some icy steps, breaking your leg.

Normally, you could file a lawsuit against the person or company who owns the steps in order to recover compensation for your injuries. But what happens if those steps are in front of the city hall? Or your local courthouse? Can you sue your city or county for failing to prevent your injury?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. Governmental immunity will likely prevent you from filing a lawsuit and recovering damages for injuries suffered on government property.

Is the Government Immune from Liability?

Most government entities have no liability for their actions in lawsuits under the theories of sovereign immunity and governmental immunity. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but there are important differences.

Sovereign immunity applies to state and federal governments. State and federal governments are immune to civil and criminal lawsuits, and do not have to respond to claims against them. In order to sue the federal and/or state government, the government entity must either waive its immunity protection and consent to the lawsuit, or the lawsuit must be filed under a law or statute which specifically allows the claim.  For these reasons, lawsuits against the state and federal governments are very uncommon.

In North Carolina, governmental immunity is not as broad as sovereign immunity…

In contrast to sovereign immunity, governmental immunity applies to local governmental entities like a city, county, or township. In North Carolina, governmental immunity is not as broad as sovereign immunity, and usually only applies to tort cases, like claims for negligence after an accident.

In the context of negligence cases, a local government entity only has immunity from tort claims which involve its governmental functions, and not its proprietary functions. A proprietary function is something that a city or county might do, but the action could also be done by a private entity. For example, a city may run a golf course, or a county might run a hospital, but private companies can perform these actions as well—therefore, they are proprietary functions and are not immune from lawsuits. In contrast, an activity like running a courthouse is strictly governmental, since that is not something that a private company could take over.

What Does Immunity Mean for your Accident Case?

The North Carolina Supreme Court recently decided the case of Bynum v. Wilson County, which involved a man who was injured on the steps of a building used by Wilson County. The County had leased office space in order to house several of its departments and divisions, including its utility department, where Mr. Bynum had gone to pay his water bill. As he was leaving the office, he slipped, fell down the stairs, and was paralyzed by his injuries.

Mr. Bynum filed a lawsuit against the county, and argued that governmental immunity should not apply. According to his reasoning, he was at the building to pay a utility bill. Because the operation of a water system is not strictly governmental (private entities can do this as well), Mr. Bynum argued that he was at the building for proprietary, and not governmental purposes. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed, and held that there was no governmental immunity.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, who disagreed with Mr. Bynum and the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court held that a person’s motivations are irrelevant as to whether or not governmental immunity applies.

Instead, the Supreme Court looked at the County’s purpose in using the building. The building housed several county government departments, many of which performed functions which were strictly governmental, and could only be performed by the Wilson County government.

The Supreme Court stated, “We have emphasized repeatedly the importance of the character of the municipality’s acts, rather than the nature of the plaintiff’s involvement.” Because the character of county’s interest in the building was governmental, and not proprietary, the Supreme Court held that the County was immune from tort lawsuits arising from that property.

Immunity May Not Be the End of Your Case

There are often several people or entities who can be sued for damages after an injury. Just because one entity, like the government, may be immune from lawsuits does not mean that any person injured on government property has no recourse for his or her injuries.

If you were injured on government property, you need the assistance of experienced personal injury attorneys to determine the best way for you to recover compensation for your injuries. At Riddle & Brantley, our attorneys have tried all kinds of injury cases, and can help you the justice you deserve. Call (800)525-7111 to have your claim reviewed by one of our experienced North Carolina injury attorneys for free.

At Riddle & Brantley, your first consultation is 100% FREE and we’re ready to help you today.