Suing an individual or business is something we hear of all the time in the United States. Less common is the suing of a city, state, or other municipality. Can a person even do that?
The short answer is yes — cities can be sued in personal injury lawsuits and other types of civil suits. However, the process is different from (and significantly more complex than) suing a person, company, or other private organization.
In this blog article, we’ll outline some situations where suing a city might be possible and explore how these claims work. We’ll also look at some specifics of how the process plays out in North Carolina.
Reasons You Might be Able to Sue a City or Municipality
As with all types of civil lawsuits, a plaintiff might have grounds to sue a city when a city government or city employee commits a wrongful act (tort) that harms the plaintiff and causes losses. Examples of situations that could give rise to a lawsuit against a city include:
- Being hit by a government vehicle (police car, public works vehicle, parks and rec truck, city bus, construction vehicle, public school bus, etc.)
- Slipping and falling due to hazardous conditions in a government building, such as City Hall or the Secretary of State’s office
- Being attacked or otherwise harmed because government security was inadequate
- Medical malpractice committed by public health care workers, doctors partnering with Medicare/Medicaid, or a government department (Veterans’ Affairs, for example)
In any type of litigation against a government, multiple factors will determine your ability to make a solid case and recover financial compensation. However, regardless of where you live, one thing is almost certain: it will be harder to sue the city than it would be to sue an individual or private organization, because governments have special legal protections and additional resources that aren’t available to private parties.
Suing a City is Rarely Simple, So Working with a Lawyer is Essential
Even if there’s no doubt that you experienced injury or property damage because of the negligent actions of a government employee or agency, bringing a successful lawsuit against a city will be a challenge. The difficulty of suing a city doesn’t mean you can’t succeed, but it does mean you’ll need to work with an experienced attorney who understands the law and is prepared to fight aggressively on your behalf.
How to Sue a City for Negligence
First, you’ll generally file a claim with the city government, at which point you’ll be directed to either the city attorney’s office or the risk management division.
Once the city receives your claim, it has three options:
- Accept the claim and pay your damages
- Negotiate with you to try and settle your case for less than the full amount of damages you’ve specified
- Deny the claim outright
There’s very little chance the city will simply accept your claim and pay you the full amount of damages. Most often, the city will try to deny the claim or negotiate the amount down. If you can’t resolve the claim with the city, you can file a lawsuit against the city for negligence. As with any lawsuit, you’ll need to prove the city was negligent and that the negligence directly caused or contributed to your injuries and damages.
You’ll also need to consider whether the at-fault party was a government organization as a whole or an individual employee, as the difference can affect certain aspects of your case. (We’ll talk about this more later in the article.)
If you’re familiar with punitive damages, be aware that most states won’t allow you to recover these types of damages from a city government. North Carolina does not allow for punitive damages in lawsuits against a city or municipality. (If you don’t know about punitive damages and want to learn more, read this article from our blog.)
Make sure to check the statute of limitations for personal injury and negligence claims in your state. In North Carolina, claims must be filed within three years for a personal injury case and within two years for wrongful death.
One factor that can create challenges when bringing a lawsuit against a municipality is a legal concept called sovereign immunity. Under sovereign immunity, governments are immune from liability and can only be sued if they waive this immunity.
At first, sovereign immunity sounds like it makes suing a government impossible. Why would the government agree to let you sue it when they could just say “no”? In the past, this concern was real — sovereign immunity made it extremely difficult to sue governments.
However, many states have scaled back sovereign immunity in recent years due to political pressure from the public. Sovereign immunity no longer applies to many cities and municipalities. And even in states like North Carolina, where the state government still enjoys sovereign immunity, the government has waived this immunity and allowed negligence lawsuits against itself in certain circumstances. (We’ll discuss this more in the next section.)
What about city and local governments? Again, this depends on where you live. In North Carolina, local governments have immunity when the act in question happened while the government (or its employee) was performing governmental functions. However, if the government was engaged in proprietary activity (which means activity that a government agency wouldn’t traditionally perform), the government doesn’t have immunity.
Determining whether a government was engaged in governmental activity or proprietary activity can be extremely tricky, and court decisions on this topic haven’t always been consistent.
In general, sovereign immunity is a complex issue that varies widely from state to state and case to case, so you’ll need to consult an experienced attorney and get personalized advice about how sovereign immunity may affect your case.
North Carolina Tort Claims Act
The North Carolina Tort Claims Act (NCTCA) is the specific section of our state laws where the state waives its sovereign immunity against certain types of negligence claims. The NCTCA applies in any case where a state officer, employee, or agent engages in negligent behavior and causes harm while acting as a government employee. In these cases, the act makes it so you can sue the state just like any person or company.
All claims made under the NCTCA have to be filed with our state’s Industrial Commission, which is the court that typically hears workers’ compensation cases. The NCTCA governs local as well as state cases, and most cities include information on how to file these claims in their offices and on their websites.
Note that the NCTCA only allows you to sue the state government for the actions of an employee if that employee was acting in the scope of their duties. So, if a driver working for the city crashed into you while they were on the clock and driving a city vehicle, you can potentially sue the city for damages under the NCTCA. However, if the same driver hit you in the evening while they were off duty, the state is not liable.
Also, the NCTCA doesn’t apply if an individual government employee hurt you because of an intentional act. If a government employee hurt you on purpose, the city isn’t liable, although you may be able to sue the employee as a private citizen by filing an intentional tort claim.
The NCTCA also places a $1 million cap on non-economic damages like pain and suffering. There is no cap for economic damages, so you can potentially recover compensation that reflects all your lost wages, medical bills, property damage, and other out-of-pocket costs, no matter how large the amount is.
Between the complicated process of filing a claim, the tricky nature of the law in this area, and the large amount of evidence you’ll need to win in court, it’s essential to work with an experienced injury lawyer if you want to sue a city or other municipality. Without help from an attorney, your chances of bringing a successful lawsuit against a city or municipal government are very low.
Myers Law Firm: Fighting for Injured Victims of Negligence in and Around Charlotte, North Carolina
If you or someone you love suffered serious injuries in Mecklenburg County because of someone else’s negligent behavior, please contact Myers Law Firm right away. We’ll listen to your story and explain your legal options at no cost to you.
To schedule your free initial consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney from our team, please complete our quick and easy online contact form or call us at 888-376-2889.
The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.