When an injury happens, those who are liable need to be held responsible for their negligence. People filing suit for damages are usually going up against companies cutting corners to save money, or medical professionals ignoring their duty to protect their patients. Workers’ Compensation cases, slip and fall injuries, and so many other types of personal injury cases find fault in a person or a corporation’s responsibility to protect the public. The government also has a responsibility to protect people, even if sometimes they might seem like they are above the law. Personal injury cases can be stressful enough without the concern that a case is unwinnable. The short answer to this concern is the government has Sovereign Immunity concerning many personal injury cases, but there are exceptions to this policy available to the public.
One of the most problematic elements of bringing suit is the amount of bureaucracy and red tape to cut through to have the entity answer for its offenses. Iowa statutes regarding claims against the government for personal injury liability are extensive. To bring suit, qualifying criteria must be met. Exemptions that may interfere with a case against a government entity may also complicate matters. Otherwise, the government is far from being “above the law” when it comes to liability for personal injury.
Exemptions to Liability
Plenty of exemptions to what is considered a liability exist when it comes to the government. Here are a few examples of exemptions to liability:
- Employees: Those working for the government are limited to what they can do in regards to bringing suit against the government entity. They have other channels they can work through in the case of being injured on the job in the performance of their duties, such as Workers’ Compensation. Employees of the State could be anyone, from incarcerated persons doing highway cleanup to medical staff employed by the government and acting on their behalf. Each is still afforded the same protection against liability.
- Claims associated with tax collection: Unfortunately, as with most matters concerning tax collection, the law is very restrictive and difficult to pursue when it comes to personal injury.
- Highway and infrastructure: Even if the roads are bad, the government is not responsible for damages inflicted on you or your vehicle in the event of an accident without a lot of investigation to determine liability.
- Act of an officer or employee of the municipality: Since employees are working on behalf of the state, they are exempt from liability on a personal level.
- Punitive damages: It makes sense that punitive damages which would normally be assigned to an individual at fault for damages couldn’t apply to a governmental entity.
- Negligent design or construction: Faults in infrastructure and design are exempt from liability, unless claims are based on gross negligence. Many of these exemptions pertain to infrastructure, inspection, and enforcement of standards and how they pertain to services and equipment provided to the public.
- Immunity: The government has a responsibility to defend officers, employees, and elected officials. This means that acting on behalf of the government entity gives individuals protection, with the exception of punitive damages. In other words, gross negligence or acting in a purposeful way to endanger the public leave the employee wide open for punitive damages.
What is allowed?
Exemptions don’t seem to leave a lot of possibilities open in regards to government liability. This is where the process comes in to protect the rights of the injured private citizen. By filing a claim first with the Attorney General, it can be determined whether or not the employee was acting on behalf of the government in accordance with their duties.
If the person or entity responsible for the damages was determined to be acting outside the scope of their duties, then they could be held liable for damages just like any private citizen or company in a court of law. Even then, they still have a chance to refute these claims by filing a petition within 90 days.
For example, a case might be possible if an employee of a road crew were using heavy equipment for their own personal use, say clearing a driveway or transporting a personal vehicle and collided with a private citizen’s car. Even though they are employees of the government and had access to the vehicle, they weren’t specifically requested by the government to use the vehicle for that purpose.
Another example might be an employee who cooks for a government entity, such as an office cafeteria or prison kitchen, using government equipment to cook food for an outdoor event without permission or request by the government. Someone at the event might accidentally get burned, but the employee was not working on behalf of the government, and someone was injured using their equipment. An attorney can better navigate what would and what would not circumvent sovereign immunity in these cases.
An employee might also be held liable if it can be proven that the cause of their actions were due to malice or done intentionally to cause harm.
Types of personal injury
As with any personal injury case, the possibilities of what could constitute injury or loss are numerous.
- Cuts and bruises
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Slip and fall injuries
- Broken bones
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Animal bites
- Chemical spills
- Severed limbs
Statute of Limitations
Whereas the statute of limitations across the country is two years against private individuals and corporations, in Iowa, someone who has been injured due to no fault of their own needs to file a claim within 72 hours of an accident with a government vehicle. Depending on the severity of injuries, hospitalization, and other factors, an attorney would be able to help in these matters, as they would know the proper channels to file suit and report the injury within this short amount of time.
Other than punitive damages, which are possible only with employees who are determined to have been acting outside their assigned duties, damages are fairly consistent with other personal injury cases as far as what is covered. It is important to note too that if the Attorney General rejects your claim and upholds sovereign immunity, you cannot pursue the matter any further.
- Emergency medical services
- Loss of income/future income
- Permanent disability
- Pain and suffering
- Death and burial payments
A Difficult Path to Take
Though filing suit against a government entity in Iowa is difficult, it is not impossible. Many government entities purchase liability insurance to assist in paying for damages. For example, the University of Iowa purchases insurance for its vehicles, medical malpractice insurance, and other special circumstances when applicable. Many times, attorneys deal more with insurers than they do petitioning the government to hold its employees accountable, and this might be an alternate avenue to take when seeking compensation for damages. Contact or call us at 515-444-4000 as soon as possible for a free consultation.