Suing the Government in North Carolina: Supreme Court Decision Addresses Sovereign Immunity

What happens if you suffer injury on city, county, state or federal property?

Some think you can sue the government and squeak out a settlement over anything. Others have some knowledge of the concept of sovereign immunity, and so they think an accident on “public property” leaves you without recourse. 952313_gavel.jpg

The North Carolina Supreme Court recently took up the issue in Estate of Williams v. Parks & Recreation Dep’t (No. 232PA11) in an August decision, ruling that the estate of a man who drowned on park property could proceed with a negligence lawsuit. Legal complexities put reality somewhere between those extremes; consulting an experienced personal injury lawyer in Rutherfordton or elsewhere in the Carolinas will best answer your questions and help ensure that your rights are protected in the wake of such an accident.

The Pasquotank County parks and rec department had filed a motion seeking summary judgement on the grounds of governmental and sovereign immunity. Both the Superior Court of Pasquotank County and a North Carolina Court of Appeals denied the motion.

Erik Dominic Williams drowned at a public park, Fun Junktion, in June 2007 and his estate sued the park for negligence. Owned by Pasquotank County and maintained and operated by its Parks & Rec department, attorneys for the county denied any negligence and asserted the affirmative defenses of governmental immunity, sovereign immunity and contributory negligence.

Williams drowned in a swimming hole in an area of the park used for private functions. Essentially, attorneys for the county contended the county was not at fault, in part because Williams was at fault. And, in the alternative, even if the county was found to be negligent, it enjoyed immunity under governmental and sovereign immunity.

Sovereign immunity is is a legal doctrine by which a state or government entity cannot commit legal wrong and is immune from civil or criminal prosecution. In the late 1800s, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Hans v Louisiana (1890) that the Eleventh Amendment affirms the protection of sovereign immunity held by the states in federal court. Several more recent Supreme Court decisions have strengthened those protections, including Blatchford v. ative Village of Noatak (1991) and Alden v. Maine (1999).

The issue is also governed by legislation and case law in individual states. In North Carolina, state recognition of governmental immunity dates back more than a century to Moffitt v. City of Asheville, 103 N.C. 191, 203-04, 103 N.C. 237, 254- 55, 9 S.E. 695, 697 (1889) State law says a county or local municipal government is “immune from suit for the negligence of its employees in the exercise of governmental functions absent waiver of immunity.‟

In this case, the Superior Court judge denied the defense motion to dismiss, concluding governmental immunity did not apply because the county “charged and collected fees” for the park, thus putting the county in business and competition with private entities running entertainment venues for consumers.

That decision was unanimously upheld by an appeals court panel, which found immunity applies to counties and municipalities performing governmental functions — not those which are proprietary. Whether an activity is proprietary under the law hinges on a number of factors, including whether it’s an activity traditionally carried out by government, whether a fee is charged, and whether the activity turns a profit.

In its decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court notes it has largely avoided arbitrating disagreements on the issue — reasoning that any substantial legal changes should come form the legislature. However, it notes that government immunity is not without limit: “[G]overnmental immunity covers only the acts of a municipality or a municipal corporation committed pursuant to its governmental functions.”

The state’s high court returned the case to the lower court for a decision regarding whether operation of the park can be considered a governmental activity. The county argues N.C.G.S. § 160A-351, North Carolina‟s Recreation Enabling Law, gives municipalities the power to create, fund, and maintain recreation facilities — thus operating a park is not a proprietary function.

Local, county and state government do not always enjoy immunity when an injury or death occurs on such property. However, government entities generally enjoy greater protection from prosecution than private citizens. This is true whether you are in an accident with a police cruiser or slip and fall in City Hall.

Strict statutes of limitations also limit the time you have to initiate such lawsuits. Seeking the advice of an experience Carolina injury attorney can best protect your rights.

If you or a loved one is involved in an accident, contact Grimes Teich Anderson LLP. Call 1.800.533.6845. No Attorney Fees Until You’ve Been Paid.

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