What is Sovereign Immunity?

By: Tom DeLattre

Sovereign Immunity

Sovereign immunity shields and outright prohibits or restricts tort (negligence) suits against the government. This includes schools, police departments, counties and many other offices and agencies.

However, Florida Statute 768.28 provides a waiver of this immunity. The statute states, in part, “In accordance with the State Constitution, the state, for itself and for its agencies or subdivisions, hereby waives sovereign immunity for liability for torts (wrongdoing/negligence) but only to the extent specified in this act. Actions at law against the state or any of its agencies or subdivisions to recover damages in tort for money damages against the state or its agencies or subdivisions for injury or loss of property, personal injury, or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the agency or subdivision while acting within the scope of the employee’s office or employment under circumstances in which the state or such agency or subdivision, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant, in accordance with the general laws of this state, may be prosecuted subject to the limitations specified in this act.”

The Case of the Bus Driver

So, for example, if a police officer driving his or her patrol vehicle causes an accident and injures someone, Florida Law allows the injured person to recover compensation for their injuries against the police agency, but only up to certain limits. The limits were raised in 2011 from $100,000 per person/$200,000 per claim to $200,000 per person/$300,000 per claim. However, the police officer is not personally liable unless it can be shown that the officer acted in bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton and willful disregard, Florida Statute 768.28(9)(a).

This issue recently came to light in a case against a school bus driver. The evidence established that the bus driver, against the school’s policy and procedures, told students that they needed to cross the street in the dark prior to the school bus arriving at their stop or the bus driver would refuse to pick them up. When crossing the street, as instructed by the school bus driver, a child was struck by a car and was injured.

The evidence also established that the school board’s policy required that the kids not attempt to cross the street until the school bus arrived, the red lights on the bus were illuminated, and the stop arm extended to permit students to cross the street.

In this case, the Court allowed the parents of the injured child to proceed with a claim against the driver individually, as the driver may be personally liable if the parents can demonstrate that the driver acted outside his employment by restricting the kids from following the school board’s policy and procedures or acted in bad faith or with malicious purpose or in disregard of human rights, safety, or property.

Unfortunately, the same Court released the school board from any liability. The court found that, since the child had not yet boarded the bus, the student was not in the control and custody of the school board at the time of the incident.

If you, a friend or a loved one are unfortunately injured as a result of negligence by a governmental agency or have any questions, do not hesitate to contact Wieland, Hilado & DeLattre, P.A. at 407-841-7699. For additional resources, keep checking our blog, LIKE us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more helpful hints and to always be informed about best practices in law.

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