Can I Sue a City?

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 Liability of a City

When a person is injured by a private party, they are legally entitled to sue that private party in civil court for the personal injuries that they suffered. If that injured person, most commonly referred to as a plaintiff, is successful in their personal injury lawsuit in civil court, they are then entitled to recover damages, which are generally monetary in nature.

Similar to when a person is injured by a private third party, a city or government may also cause an injury to a person. In these cases, the city or government may also be civilly liable for the injuries inflicted upon the person that was allegedly harmed by the actions of the city. However, because cities and local governments are not individual third parties, there are numerous laws that afford such governmental entities with protections from lawsuits and liability.

It is important to note that although a city may still be held liable for injuries caused to an individual, it is much more difficult to hold a city civilly liable for a person’s injuries than to hold a private third party liable.

When Can a City Be Sued?

As mentioned above, a city may still be held civilly liable for causing injuries to a person. However, a person may not always have legal standing to sue a city for their injuries. Standing is a legal term that refers to an individual’s legal right to initiate a lawsuit against another party. As mentioned above, if an individual is injured by a third party, then they have the legal standing to sue that third party for their intentional or negligent actions or inactions that resulted in damages to the plaintiff.

However, with a city, an injured party may not always have legal standing to initiate a lawsuit against a city or local government. This is because there are various federal and state laws that limit when an injured party may bring a civil lawsuit against the city or local government. Further, the laws regarding a city’s liability will differ by jurisdiction.

The following is a list of legal concepts that may limit an individual’s right to initiate a lawsuit against the city:

  • Sovereign Immunity: The most impactful legal concept that impacts a person’s ability to initiate a civil lawsuit against a city or local government is the concept of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a concept whereby a city or local government is immune from civil tort suits by virtue of governmental immunity because of the city’s expansive potential for liability.
    • Typically, a state’s constitution or local statute will outline whether or not a city has sovereign immunity, as well as when that city may be sued.
    • It is important to note that most laws today have eliminated or limited a city or municipality’s sovereign immunity protections by either legislation or judicial decisions.
    • By default a city is liable for it’s tortious conduct and actions, unless the city is shielded by state laws;
  • Express Permission: It is important to note that one exception to sovereign immunity is that the city or local government may waive their right to sovereign immunity and give a citizen the right to sue them through express permission.
    • Typically, express permission to sue a city or local government, i.e. giving the person legal standing to sue the city, is given in cases where the citizens would be outraged if they could not be compensated for harm caused by the city, such as a city employee intentionally poisoning the water supply, or city vehicles causing accidents with private vehicles; and
  • Fourteenth Amendment: In many cases a person will bring their lawsuit against a city under federal laws, and utilize the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution to support their legal standing to sue the city.

Once again, the reasoning behind limiting a city or local governments civil liability is because the city is much more exposed to the public then that of a private citizen, and the citizens do not want government officials or actors to be apprehensive about performing actions due to their exposure to liability.

Who Can Act on Behalf of a City?

There are many different people that may be authorized to act on behalf of a city. For example, the following list of city employees will typically be deemed as authorized to step into the shoes of the city and act on the city’s behalf:

  • Police officers, firefighters, and other law enforcement officers;
  • City employed utility workers and landscapers;
  • City employed construction workers;
  • Other city employed employees, such as members of the city government or administrative officials; and/or
  • City medical officers, social workers, or teachers.

What Can a City Be Sued For?

Once again, a person that has been injured as a result of a city’s actions or inactions, or a representative of the city’s actions or inactions, will typically be allowed to sue the city for negligence or other personal injury actions.

As mentioned above, most laws have evolved to remove the sovereign immunity that was previously granted to cities and local municipalities as a result of the lobbying of citizens outraged by the expansive protections from liability granted by sovereign immunity laws.

However, in order for a plaintiff to successfully sue the city for negligence, they will still have to prove all of the legal elements necessary for their civil claim. This means that a plaintiff will still have to prove to the court that the city owed them a duty of legal care, that the duty was breached, that the breach of duties resulted in injuries to them, and that the damages are quantifiable (i.e. there is a certain monetary figure that would restore the plaintiff back to the state they were before the negligent action or inaction occurred).

Other causes of action that a plaintiff may bring against a city include:

  • Intentional Torts: These lawsuits are still personal injury lawsuits, but they are brought because of the intentional actions of the city or a city employee.
    • Examples of intentional actions in which a city may be sued include a police officer using excessive force or wrongfully arresting a person; and
  • Constitutional Violations: Once again, a person who believes that their constitutional rights have been violated may bring a federal action against the city for the harm that they suffered.
    • Examples of constitutional violations of a city include a police officer unlawfully searching and seizing property, or a city denying a person the right to something granted to others based on a protected characteristic.

What Should I Do If I Want to Sue the City?

As mentioned above, if an individual has been harmed by a city, the first thing that the individual should do is determine whether or not they have legal standing to sue the city. Another option is finding out if there is an administrative process for resolving disputes against the city, such as submitting a complaint to the city department that was allegedly responsible for the injury.

If there is no administrative process by which the plaintiff can receive a remedy, and the plaintiff has the legal standing to sue or express permission to sue was given, then the plaintiff should initiate a civil lawsuit against the city for their injuries. In most cases, hiring a lawyer to sue the city is necessary in order to ensure that the lawsuit is based on the correct legal theory and does not get dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity or other limited liability statutes.

Should I Seek Legal Advice?

If you have been injured as a result of the actions of a city or local government, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced and local government lawyer.

An experienced government attorney will be familiar with your rights and legal options according to your state’s specific laws on sovereign immunity. Finally, an attorney will also be able to initiate a civil lawsuit on your behalf and represent you in court, as needed.

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