Suppose a Pennsylvania government employee carelessly ran a red light and hit your car, injuring you. Or maybe you tripped and fell on a dangerous sidewalk owned or maintained by the City of Philadelphia. Can you bring a personal injury claim or lawsuit to get compensation for your injuries?
Yes, probably so. Pennsylvania law allows the state and its local governments to be held accountable for some of the personal injuries they cause, just like private individuals or businesses. To bring a claim, you'll need to follow extra steps and meet special deadlines. If you don't, chances are you lose your right to recover. We'll cover the basics of bringing a personal injury claim against Pennsylvania and its local governments.
When the American colonies were formed, they inherited many of their legal rules from England. One of those rules was called "sovereign immunity." Under English law, the king or queen, as sovereign and lawmaker, could do no wrong. They were immune from legal responsibility for what would otherwise be wrongful acts.
Government immunity today. Today, our governments—federal, state, and local—enjoy similar immunities. Sovereign immunity shields the federal and state governments. Local governments like counties, townships, and cities are immune under a similar rule called "governmental immunity."
Governments have partially waived their immunity. So what does this immunity mean for your personal injury claim? It means that as a general rule, the government isn't legally responsible for injuries and damages it causes unless it consents to be held liable by "waiving," or giving up, its immunity.
The federal government has partially waived its immunity in a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act. The states have all passed similar laws, partially waiving immunity for themselves and their local governments.
But if you want to bring a personal injury against the government, you must follow the rules the government has laid down. Typically, these rules:
Pennsylvania has created two laws partially waiving immunity and giving consent to be sued. The Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act applies to the state itself. A second law called the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applies to Pennsylvania local governments.
Pennsylvania partially waives its sovereign immunity and consents to be sued—but only in certain kinds of cases—in the Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act. You'll find this law at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8501-8528 (2023).
Under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8522(a) (2023), Pennsylvania has waived immunity only for injuries and damages caused by the state's negligence (carelessness). The state hasn't agreed to be responsible for claims based on intentional torts—deliberate misconduct that causes harm.
In other words, if you're hurt by the state's careless action, you might be able to bring a claim for damages. But if a state worker does something intentionally that causes you harm, your options will be more limited.
Pennsylvania hasn't agreed to answer for all negligent harms. The kinds of claims it allows are listed in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8522(b) (2023). Here are some of the most common.
In a personal injury claim against Pennsylvania under the Sovereign Immunity Act, damages are capped at $250,000 per person and $1,000,000 per incident. You can recover damages for your:
(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8528 (2023).)
In the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, found at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8541-8564 (2023), Pennsylvania has waived governmental immunity and consented to suit on behalf of its political subdivisions. The substance of the Tort Claims Act is similar to the Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act.
Pennsylvania local governments, like the state itself, are on the hook for negligent acts by the government or by government employees acting within the scope of their duties. Pennsylvania law doesn't waive local governmental immunity for intentional harms. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8542(a) (2023).)
For the most part, the Tort Claims Act allows the same kinds of claims against local governments as are allowed against the state. (See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8542(b) (2023).) Here are some of the most common.
Here are the kinds of damages you can collect in a claim under the Tort Claims Act:
Damages for all personal injury claims resulting from a single occurrence can't exceed $500,000.
(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8553 (2023).)
Before you can sue Pennsylvania or a local government, you first have to give the government written notice of your claim. You must send the notice, within six months from the date of your injury, to the responsible government agency. If your claim is against Pennsylvania, a copy of the notice also must be delivered to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
The notice must include:
If you don't file the required notice, then any lawsuit you try to file more than six months after the date of injury must be dismissed.
(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5522 (2023).)
Filing this notice is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in court, but it isn't the same as filing a lawsuit. If you want to sue the government for your personal injuries, you must file your case within the personal injury statute of limitations. The filing deadline is two years, usually from the date of your injury. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524(2) (2023).)
Suing the government isn't a simple matter, even if your claim seems simple. In addition to the immunities we've described here, there are other immunities and defenses that the government and its employees can—and likely will—raise. You can bet that the government will be represented by experienced lawyers who know their way around personal injury claims.
As a rule, you only get one chance to make your case for compensation. Make it a fair fight by hiring experienced legal counsel to represent you. Here's how you can find a lawyer who's right for you and your claim.