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Can You Sue Government Officials?

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Suing state and federal government officials and employees is not always possible. When it is, it's more difficult than most people expect.

There are several barriers to overcome to get justice from the government, even for government employees.

Cases often involve:

  • Civil rights case against a law enforcement officer for excessive force
  • Postal carrier car accident
  • Personal injury cases from parking lots, buildings, or accidents
  • Mistreatment or bias from a government agency
  • Property damage from federal agency employee

Sovereign Immunity for Federal and State Government and Government Officials

One of the biggest hurdles to getting justice from the federal, state, or local government, or an employee, or official, is the legal doctrine of "sovereign immunity."

This legal doctrine basically states that the government ("the sovereign") is immune from liability (can't be held accountable in court).

However, while immunity is an actual thing, under limited circumstances, the government cannot claim sovereign immunity to escape liability. The United States Supreme Court is expected to provide more insights as to when immunity defenses will apply to police officers and federal agents that are being sued for civil rights violations.

Federal Tort Claims Act 101

One of the most common ways for an individual to get around the issue of sovereign immunity is to comply with Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). This law exists in most states, and even on the federal level for limited claims, such as auto accidents caused by federal employees.

Basically, most government entities require that people file a legal claim with it before they jump to filing a lawsuit for:

  • Injury or damages
  • An employee that acted on behalf of the government entity

Usually, the government agency will have specific claim forms with instructions, or the state or local laws will provide detailed instructions on what is required to submit a valid claim.

However, be forewarned. Frequently, government injury or damages claims must be filed with the responsible entity within six months or less from the date of the injury. This is called the "statute of limitations" and it is a very fast time limitation compared to most cases.

Protecting Civilian's Statutory or Constitutional Rights

Generally, a government official or employee will be immune from liability so long as their conduct did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights that a reasonable government employee should know.

This type of immunity is called "qualified immunity." This standard is frequently the subject of much debate. Particularly whether the statutory or constitutional right is established. It is also often debated whether the conduct rises to the level of a violation. These are both fact-intensive inquiries that make for complex debates and can make suing the government a complex issue.

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