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Municipal law

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the August 14, 2007 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

So many times we hear the same questions: what responsibility does my township, borough, or even the state have to me as a citizen, and what can I do if they fall short?

Common Questions:

Can I sue the government or the state?

First, a history lesson:

The 11th Amendment basically gives states a certain amount of sovereign immunity, which means states can’t be sued by either citizens of other states or citizens of their own states in federal court. In addition, Pennsylvania has passed the Sovereign Immunity Act. This act basically says that in most cases, the state is immune from being sued.

In addition, you can not file a suit for money damages. This is based on the theory that if you were to recover any judgment, it would be paid by the state treasury.

There are 9 exceptions to this concept:

  1. Vehicle liability ­ when any agent of the State or a state party operates any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the State;
  2. Vaccine ­ liability may be imposed on the State if the vaccine is not manufactured in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania must take responsibility for it.
  3. Medical / professional liability ¬ acts of health care employees of State facilities or institutions or by a state employee who is a doctor, dentist, nurse or related health care personnel;
  4. Care, custody or control of animals in the possession or control of the State, including police dogs and horses;
  5. National Guard - acts of members of the Pennsylvania military forces;
  6. Care, custody or control of personal property in the possession or control of State parties;
  7. Dangerous conditions created by potholes and sinkholes on State highways;
  8. State real estate, highways and sidewalks ¬ dangerous conditions of real estate; and
  9. Inappropriate liquor store sales at Pennsylvania liquor stores by employees of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (to minors, those visibly intoxicated, etc)

The Sovereign Immunity Act limits recovery against the State to a maximum of “$250,000 in favor of any plaintiff or $1,000,000 in the aggregate.

IMPORTANT: The “Notice” Concept

Within six months after an injury, a potential plaintiff must give written notice of the injury to the Commonwealth or government unit. The notice must include the identity of the injured party, his/her address, the location, date and hour of the accident, and the name and address of his/her treating physician. Failure to file the notice within six months bars a suit for the plaintiff’s injuries.

Can I sue a local government or police department?

Lawsuits against local governments are viewed in light of the concept of governmental immunity.

The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act bars suits against local municipalities, and carves out some exceptions. They are similar to the exceptions noted in the Sovereign Immunity Act and include:

1. operation of a motor vehicle;

2. care, custody or control of personal property of others in the possession or control of the local agency;

3. care, custody or control of real property in the possession of the local agency;

4. care, custody or control of trees, traffic controls and street lighting, which create a dangerous condition;

5. a dangerous condition of utility service facilities;

6. a dangerous condition of streets;

7. a dangerous condition of sidewalks; and

8. the care, custody or control of animals.

Also like the Sovereign Immunity Act, the Tort Claims Act limits the amount of damages recoverable against a local agency, and restricts types of damages which may be recovered. It limits damages against a local agency to a maximum of $500,000 either by a single plaintiff or in the aggregate.

Winter’s coming and so are the potholes. If my car is damaged is the state or local government responsible?

You’d like to think so, but it’s not that easy.

Again based on the statutes, on a state road you can’t recover property damages, only a claim for personal injuries, AND you must show that the state knew about the pothole (written notice) and had a reasonable time to fix it and didn’t.

For local roads, you can sue for property damage, but because these damages will be covered by insurance you’ll probably only get your insurance deductible back. You can sue for personal injuries, but again you must show that the municipality knew about the problem and did not fix it.

For local roads, you can sue for property damage, but because these damages will be covered by insurance, you’ll probably only get your insurance deductible back. You can sue for personal injuries, but again you must show that the municipality knew about the problem and did not fix it. Lawsuits against a state or local government are VERY tricky and require you to take legal action much faster than the average lawsuit. To make sure your rights are preserved, you must speak with an attorney as soon as possible. Contact the Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555.

If you need to speak to an attorney, call our Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555.