Going to court and filing a personal injury lawsuit is usually an option when you're injured by someone else's carelessness in Alabama. But what happens if the harm was caused by the government -- either by a government agency itself, or by a government employee who was on the job?
Think of a car accident involving a government employee or a slip and fall in a government building. Filing an injury claim after an incident involving the government is a lot more challenging, and in this article we'll cover the details of the law in Alabama.
Article I, Section 14 of the Alabama Constitution states "That the State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity." This statement is an expression of the old English rule of "sovereign immunity."
Every U.S. state still acknowledges the rule of sovereign immunity, which is sometimes expressed as "the king can do no wrong." In England, people were unable to sue the king, even if the king had taken an action that injured them. This prohibition existed because it was reasoned that, if the king made the laws, then the king could not be held accountable under those same laws.
Today, every U.S. state carves out some exceptions to the rule of sovereign immunity. Alabama has very few exceptions to this rule, making it difficult to succeed in an injury claim against the government.
Alabama law distinguishes between claims against a state government entity itself and claims against government employees acting as individuals. The first type of claim is known as a “State claim.” Nearly all State claims in Alabama are barred by “State immunity.”
The second type of claim is known as a “State-agent claim.” Unlike State claims, State-agent claims can be filed if the government employee who caused harm acted "contrary to clearly established law" and did not act in good faith.
In Ex parte Sawyer, 876 So.2d 433 (Ala. 2003), the Alabama Supreme Court held that, when an injured person seeks damages from a government employee in a State-agent claim, the question is whether a “reasonable official” would have believed his or her actions were legal.
In some State-agent cases, “State-agent immunity” works to bar the claim. State employees whose positions are created by legislative pronouncement receive State-agent immunity automatically, as do constitutional officers. In Ex parte Estate of Reynolds, 946 So.2d (Ala. 2006), the Alabama Supreme Court held that other government employees must show that they had immunity. If they do, the injured plaintiff has to demonstrate why an exception should apply. Showing that a state agent acted “willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his or her authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of the law” may all create an exception to immunity. In other words, mere carelessness or negligence is not enough.
Claims against government employees or agents in Alabama may be filed in the state's civil court. However, they must be filed according to the statutory deadline (set by the Alabama statute of limitations for injury claims), which is typically two years from the date of the underlying accident or incident.
For minors under age 18 who are injured, the two-year statute of limitations begins to run when the injured person turns 19.
It’s also important to figure out whether your claim is against an employee of the state, or an employee of a local or municipal government, such as a city or county worker. Different rules apply to claims filed at the local or municipal level. For instance, a formal claim against a municipality must be filed within six months of the date of injury, according to Alabama Code section 11-47-23.
The formal claim process typically begins when you file a claim form with the unit of government involved in your case. Several Alabama localities, including the City of Montgomery and the City of Birmingham, provide instructions and claim forms on their websites or in city offices. If you do not file your notice of claim within the deadline -- so that it can be properly considered, and accepted or declined by the government -- you may not be able to file your lawsuit in court later (which is usually the procedure to follow if your claim is officially denied).