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Specific Rules Exist for Suing Municipalities

Suing Municipalities for Injuries in Public Spaces

All 50 states and the municipalities that they comprise are protected by a concept known as "sovereign immunity," which is government immunity from lawsuits. Nevertheless, every state has passed laws that waive this immunity to some degree. Those laws also establish how and when you can sue a municipality and make the process more complex than suing a business or individual.

Sovereign Immunity

Sovereign immunity is a legal concept that the U.S. inherited from England where it is often called "crown immunity." It means that federal, state and local governments cannot be sued unless they allow it. The federal government and all state governments have passed laws that waive that protection but also dictate how and when lawsuits are allowed. That allows for lawsuits against cities, counties, towns, villages, school districts, and agencies, which also means that the laws for suing such entities are different in Pennsylvania than they are in other states.

The Right to Sue a Municipality

All states have passed laws that allow you to sue cities and other municipalities within them. In fact, most states simply have one set of rules that apply to both them and the municipalities that they comprise. Pennsylvania is one of the exceptions. It has two sets of rules. The Sovereign Immunity Act governs lawsuits against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania whereas the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act governs lawsuits against any of the political subdivisions that it contains. As a general rule in Pennsylvania, if you would have grounds to sue an individual or business, then you have the right to sue a municipality, but there are differences when it comes to the process and time frame.

Statute of Limitations

Perhaps the most notable difference when suing a municipality as opposed to a business is the statute of limitations. In most cases, the statute of limitations is reduced. In Pennsylvania, there is a two-year statute of limitations for standard personal injury cases. However, when you bring a personal injury case against a municipality, the statute of limitations is just six months. That accelerates the timeline for the entire process and puts an even greater emphasis on getting action items accomplished on time.

Notice of Claim

It is also necessary to file a notice of claim with the municipality that you plan to sue. This notice must be submitted within a certain time limit and prior to filing the lawsuit. There is also a period after submitting the notice in which you cannot yet file the lawsuit. If you submit a lawsuit against a municipality and there is no notice on record or the notice period has not yet expired, the judge is likely to throw the lawsuit out based on that alone. There is also a particular format for the notice that must be adhered to and specific information that must be included. Any error could undermine the lawsuit, which is why it is important to have the notice prepared by an Allentown personal injury lawyer who has experience with these types of personal injury cases.

Tolling the Statute of Limitations

"Tolling" in this context refers to pausing the statute of limitations. This is possible but rare, and people should not expect that this will be an option available to them. When tolling is allowed, it is generally because the injury was severe enough that the victim was unable to act in their own interests. There are also scenarios in which the judge could deem that a representative of the municipality acted in a duplicitous manner to avoid the lawsuit, but again, such rulings are the exception and not the rule.

Limitations of Damages

Another big difference between suing a business and suing, for instance, the city of Philadelphia is the limitation on the damages that you can receive. You can only recover as much as $500,000 from a local municipality, and you can only recover up to $250,000 from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is possible that you could receive more in total if your situation involved suing multiple entities. But in many cases, the amount available is substantially lower than what would be possible if you were suing a business.

Premises Liability

This is one of the most common reasons that municipalities are sued, not just in Pennsylvania but throughout the country. Just as with private property owners, municipalities have an obligation to ensure that their properties are reasonably safe. Perhaps the most common premises liability cases involve a slip and fall. Generally, a government employee or vendor would have had to create a dangerous situation or recognize a dangerous situation and not take action to correct it. A worker failing to de-ice the walk area outside a government building is a situation where the municipality may be liable.

Care, Custody and Control of Property and Animals

Municipalities also have an obligation to move and store property in a manner that is safe. If an employee left equipment lying around and someone tripped over it, the municipality may be liable. If there are animals at the location, the municipality is responsible for controlling them as well. There are some exceptions, however, that are dictated by the Sovereign Immunity Act. An example includes the mishandling of radioactive materials, which you cannot hold municipalities or the state accountable for in Pennsylvania.

Car Accidents

Car accidents are another common reason why municipalities are sued, and this liability is not limited to public spaces but anywhere that the vehicle is being operated. This applies not just to government employees but anyone who is on official government business. It is also not limited to government-owned vehicles and extends to private vehicles, and the obligation extends to anyone injured, including other drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

Negligent Roadway Maintenance

The state is generally responsible for highways and can be held accountable if a pothole or other poor road condition leads to an injury. Municipalities can be held accountable for the upkeep of other roads. However, this can often be a complex legal matter because road upkeep responsibility is not always as straightforward as you may expect. Finding the appropriate municipality to sue will usually require a lawyer who has experience dealing with such matters in the particular region.

Medical Malpractice

Municipalities can also be responsible for medical malpractice if it occurs in a public space. Such a possibility recently became a focal point when municipalities were coordinating areas for the public to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Liquor Liability

Many states have dram shop laws. If an intoxicated person causes damage, these laws extend liability to the business that sold or served the alcohol if applicable. In Pennsylvania, its dram shop laws are explicitly extended to the state and its municipalities.

Local Representation for Personal Injury Cases

If you have been injured in a public space, you may be entitled to compensation, so you may want to contact an Allentown personal injury lawyer. The attorneys at Metzger & Kleiner have handled numerous personal injury cases, including those involving municipalities. To schedule an appointment, contact us online. You can also call our Lehigh Valley office at 610-435-7400 or our Philadelphia office at 215-567-6616.

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