Suing the government, whether it is the city or state or an arm or branch of government, seems like a given right. But in many countries, citizens have no right to sue the government because of a doctrine called sovereign immunity. Like many states in the U.S., Florida has enacted laws that specifically allow citizens to sue the government, thus waiving sovereign immunity.
Still, the government can’t be sued the same way private companies or people can. Sovereign immunity has many advantages to the government and its agencies, including a limitation on how much can be recovered in damages by an injured victim.
Who Gets Sovereign Immunity?
In many cases, it is clear who a government agency is. The city, the police department, a school, or a state executive agency, may all easily be classified as government entities.
But in many cases, there is an issue as to whether a defendant is entitled to sovereign immunity. That’s because the doctrine also applies to defendants that may not be government entities, but that perform duties closely associated with or which are controlled by a government agency. In many cases, the doctrine can apply when you least expect it to.
In a recent case, a football player at UCF was injured at football practice and sued the school—an obvious government entity, as a state school—and also sued the UCF Athletics Association, Inc. (UCFAA), the statutorily authorized organization that administered UCF’s athletics department. The UCFAA said that it, like UCF, was entitled to sovereign immunity.
The trial court said that it was not, and a jury awarded the victims $10mil from the UCFAA. An appellate court reversed the ruling, and said immunity did apply, and the case made its way to the Florida Supreme Court.
If UCF had sufficient day to day control over the UCFAA, and if the UCFAA was just an instrumentality of UCF, the sovereign immunity that UCF had would extend to the UCFAA. The Supreme Court looked at other cases, involving hospitals, prison programs, and transit management systems to determine whether they were sufficiently controlled by the state to be entitled to sovereign immunity.
Here, the court felt that UCF both exercised enough control and had the right to do so, such that the UCFAA should be entitled to sovereign immunity. UCF officials were on UCFAA’s board of directors, UCF’s athletic director managed UCFAA’s organization, and UCF had to approve any changes in bylaws, and could even decertify the UCFAA as an organization. The court looked at Florida laws that govern such organizations, finding instances where they could not take certain actions without the school or state’s permission.
Because sovereign immunity applied, the victim’s verdict was reduced to the statutorily capped $200,000. The case is a harsh reminder that often the state has control in places that aren’t so obvious, and that a suit that even remotely involves a government agency needs to be evaluated carefully for immunity issues.
Part of winning a Personal Injury case is understanding who the correct defendants are, and what limitations you may have on obtaining a judgment. If you have been a victim of injury due to another’s negligence, talk to the Miami personal injury attorneys at Gerson & Schwartz, P.A. today for a free consultation about your injury case.