Thomas McCutcheon

When disputes in Europe became so numerous that the kings could not hear and decide them all, those kings created what is now the court system. Those rulers allowed their subjects to sue one another, but they were never allowed to sue the sovereign. To this day this is known as “sovereign immunity”.

Even though we don’t have kings, the government, including federal, state, county and municipalities have retained the principle of sovereign immunity.

The United States Supreme Court, in a case arising out of the great State of Alabama, recently allowed a suit against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). In that case, decided April 29, 2019, the court noted that the activity causing the injury was related to the commercial production and sale of electricity. Many things that the TVA does are governmental in nature such as providing their own police force or exercising the right of eminent domain. Other things such as making and selling electricity are purely commercial in nature and are done by other privately owned power companies such as Alabama Power or Con Edison. When engaged in a commercial activity, the TVA is not immune from suit and may be held liable for negligence causing injury.

The State of Alabama is immune from suits naming the State of Alabama. Suits must name the proper state official and even then only certain types of lawsuits such as those compelling a state official to perform their legal duties are allowed by law. At the county level, someone who claims to be harmed by the actions of a county employee must provide a specific affidavit within one year of the alleged injury to the county and in cases against cities an affidavit must be provided within six months.

What people should know when they consider suing a governmental agency, whether it’s federal, city or state, is that it is always more difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain compensation for injury.

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