If a private party causes someone an injury, they may be liable. Similarly, if a city or municipality causes an injury, they may also be liable. However, due to the fact that a city has such a large amount of responsibility for the people living in it and control over the essential functions of daily life, the potential for lawsuits would be enormous without some limitations.

When Can a City Be Sued?

This will vary from state to state. However, there are a few concepts that every state court will apply when determining liability.

  • Sovereign Immunity – As mentioned above, due to the expansive potential for liability, there is some limitation on when a city can be sued. Furthermore, keep in mind that suing a city for money means a private citizen is seeking damages from a public budget that is made up of tax dollars. These considerations essentially mean that cities are given immunity from suit from private parties. Fortunately, there are some exceptions.
  • Express Permission – In some instances where citizens would be outraged if they could not be compensated for their harm, such as personal injures, state’s will waive their immunity and give citizen’s standing to sue. In these instances, the city, individuals, or agencies that caused that harm may be liable. Furthermore, the Federal government may give permission to sue a city or city official in order to ensure the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment are protected.
  • Ministerial v. Discretionary Functions – This exception applies to city officials If an official is using their discretion in context of a difficult situation that requires extra thought and judgment, and an injury occurs, that person will be immune from suit. However, if an official is doing something simple, routine, and non-complicated, and an injury occurs, that official will be held liable. This is called a ‘ministerial’ action, and may apply even when the law requires the official to make a personal judgment regarding a situation.

The reasoning behind this distinction is that we generally do not want government officials to be apprehensive about making difficult decisions due to the possibility of a lawsuit. If, for example, a police officer is speeding and blows through a pedestrian crosswalk, striking a person crossing the street, they will likely be liable. However, if you are driving a set of priceless ice sculptures and an officer pulls you over suspecting possession of drugs, causing these to melt, you will likely not be able to sue them because the officer, while possibly negligent, used his discretion in the context of a unique, difficult situation.

Governmental v. Proprietary Functions – In addition to ministerial and discretionary functions, many states distinguish between "governmental" and "proprietary" functions. This, however, is a little more straightforward. Governmental functions are areas where only a governmental body typically acts, where as proprietary functions are areas where a private party can also act. These distinctions are highly state specific.

Who Can Act on Behalf of a City?

This will also be highly dependent on the state and the circumstances. However, as a general matter, the following will typically be considered employees of the city:

  • Police Officers
  • Utility Workers
  • Code Enforcement
  • City Construction Workers
  • Teachers

What Can a City Be Sued For?

  • Negligence – Some common instances of negligence are a failure to maintain sidewalks, poor hiring or training processes of city officials, car accidents involving city vehicles, and a variety of other instances where the city, agencies or employees did not use due care.
  • Intentional Torts – This includes excessive force of a police officer, wrongful arrest and in some areas malicious prosecution.
  • Constitutional Violations – This includes the government taking your property without just compensation, police officers unlawfully searching and seizing your property, or a process that denies you due process of law.

Should I Seek Legal Advice?

As you can tell, this area of law is unique and extremely complicated. If you believe the city or one of their employees has harmed you, you should contact a local attorney. An experienced government lawyer will be able to advise you of your legal rights and potential for a lawsuit.