Thursday, April 26, 2012

11th Amendment/Sovereign Immunity

The following question was asked on the facebook page @

"Im wondering if a state is immune from suit sovereing do persons receive money for negligence such as when a public officer hits someone in a car accident or in a wrongful death action at a state hospital?"


Whenever you come to a question dealing with a state being sued, you should first determine whether the case has been brought in state court or in federal court. If federal court, then the question is testing the 11th amendment which prohibits the citizens of a state from suing that state or another state in federal court without the state's consent. If the case is being brought in state court, the 11th amendment is not applicable, though the states generally have sovereign immunity preventing them from being sued by private citizens in state court.

There are important exceptions to note in regards to both the 11th amendment and a state's immunity from being sued in state court. Though damages are barred, injunctions are not. A private citizen may sue to enjoin a state official from acting in violation of the citizen's constitutional rights. Further, though states are granted immunity, that immunity does not extend to suits against state officials for abusing their power in enforcing an unconstitutional statute. State officials can always be sued for injunctive relief, and, in contrast to the state's immunity, a state official can also be sued for monetary damages, but only if the damages are to be paid by the official personally, and not by the state.
Immunity also does not extend to state subdivisions, such as cities, towns, or counties. In addition, a state can consent to suit in federal court, and state court. The consent must be a clear waiver of the 11th amendment, expressly, and unequivocally.

In regards to the examples in your question, it's correct to consider sovereign immunity. The exception that would be required to sue the state official (assuming the accident occurred while engaged in official state activity), as well as the state-run hospital, would be consent. The federal government and most states provide limited waivers of sovereign immunity that allow them to be sued for personal injury accidents caused by a government employee, for accidents involving government-owned vehicles or for accidents caused by dangerous highway conditions. Both federal laws (such as the Federal Tort Claims Act), and state laws, would be the place to look to determine the extent of liability. Most states have statutes which permit lawsuits against various state-run agencies for specified causes of action. Those statutes, however, also usually set very specific requirements which must be followed before the state can be sued.

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