If you’re injured in an accident, you might not have options for holding others legally responsible. When you consult an attorney, they’ll likely ask questions to clarify whether, for example, the manager of property where you were injured knew about a dangerous spot on the property and failed to deal with it by posting warning signs and so on.
But the first question and the make-or-break answer is usually whether the manager is the government.
According to a centuries-old concept from long before the founding of U.S., governments enjoy “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits and can’t be found liable. Over the years, important but limited exceptions have been carved out, but you mostly still can’t fight city hall.
Tennessee Valley Authority has a mixed story
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that the Tennessee Valley Authority and its contractors don’t always have government immunity from injury lawsuits.
In 2013, Gary Thacker’s boat struck a powerline being raised from the Tennessee River by TVA workers. Thacker was injured and a passenger was killed.
The 1933 law that established the TVA called it a “public corporation” and gave it government duties and powers such the ability to seize property over the owner’s objections (eminent domain), as well as features of a corporation such as producing energy and selling it to consumers.
The court has now found that government immunity does not shield the TVA for wrongdoing related to the business of power production. Thacker’s lawsuit must now go back down to the lower courts again.
The slowly shrinking reach of sovereign immunity
With this ruling, another small area has been added to the places in which government entities have some liability for the actions of their employees and contractors.
The Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 opened a door for lawsuits against the federal government under certain conditions. Like a number of other states, in 1973 Tennessee followed up with its own state version of the FTCA known as the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act.
While it’s still true that the State Capital in Nashville isn’t liable in the same ways a Nashville grocery store might be, you shouldn’t always assume the government can’t be the subject of legal action for an injury.