Know the Law – What is government immunity?

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Chances are, you’ve heard the phrase “governmental immunity” but may not know what it means. Governmental immunity is a legal defense that’s available to government agencies and their employees in a negligence lawsuit.

Under Michigan law, government agencies and their employees are generally not liable for their negligent acts, if those acts were performed within the scope of their governmental function or employment. Basically, governmental immunity lets government agencies and employees function without the constant threat of being sued for their actions or decisions.

There are two kinds of governmental immunity: absolute and qualified.

Absolute immunity applies to individuals like judges, legislators and other high-ranking officials. For example, you cannot sue a judge because you don’t like the decision he made or you can’t sue a legislator because you don’t like a law that he supported.

Qualified immunity pertains generally to all government agencies and their employees. Under Michigan law, qualified immunity applies if:
• the employee was acting, or reasonably believed he or she was acting, within the scope of his or her authority at the time of the alleged negligence.
• the governmental agency for which the employee works was involved in the discharge of a governmental function at the time of the incident giving rise to the claim.
• the employee’s conduct did not amount to gross negligence that was the proximate cause of the alleged injury or damage.
For example, qualified immunity can be used as a defense in police misconduct cases. Government officials, such as law enforcement officers, are generally shielded from liability for civil damages, as long as their conduct does not violate established statutory or constitutional rights. In cases of alleged police misconduct, the person making the claim must show that law enforcement is not entitled to the governmental immunity defense.
Meanwhile, there are several exceptions to governmental immunity that are imposed by law. If a person is injured while the government engaged in conduct within one of these exceptions, the injured person can sue the government to recover for his or her injuries. Some of these exceptions are:
• Negligent operation of a motor vehicle – A government agency may be liable for bodily injury or property damage caused by the negligent operation of a government-owned vehicle.
• Public highway exception – The government agency must have known, or had reason to know, of the defect in the road and had a reasonable amount of time to repair it before the injury occurred.
• Public sidewalk exception – The injured person must prove the government agency either had notice of the alleged sidewalk defect at least 30 days prior to the injury, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known of the defective condition.
• Public building defects – A government agency may be liable for injuries sustained as a result of a condition associated with a governmental building.

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