Making an Injury Claim Against the Government in Pennsylvania

What happens when a person a personal injury case involves the potential liability of a government employee or agency?

Most personal injury claims in Pennsylvania involve private parties on both sides (meaning both the injured party and the party allegedly responsible for the injury are private individuals or businesses). What happens when a person a personal injury case involves the potential liability of a government employee or agency? For example, what if you're hit by someone driving a government vehicle, or you slip and fall because of a dangerous property condition at a state-owned building? Filing a claim against the government presents some unique challenges in Pennsylvania. Read on for the details.

Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act

Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Title 42, Section 8522 sets out the state’s Sovereign Immunity Act. By enacting this law, the state "waives," or releases, its sovereign immunity in certain types of injury cases. In other words, the state allows itself to be sued and to be held liable for damages -- but only in specific instances that are listed in the Act.

By way of background, the doctrine of "sovereign immunity" is a carryover from old England, when the king or sovereign was immune from lawsuits even when a decision or action harmed an individual. All U.S. states have conditionally waived their sovereign immunity by passing a law similar to Pennsylvania's, allowing injured people to make a claim if they have been harmed by the negligence of a government employee. But the injured person must comply with a strict set of procedural rules (and administrative deadlines) when making this kind of claim.

Government Liability Under the Sovereign Immunity Act

Under the limits listed in the Sovereign Immunity Act, Pennsylvania allows injured persons to sue government entities "for damages arising out of a negligent act”" in any case where the injured person would be able to recover damages against a private person or entity. (Learn more: What are Damages in a Personal Injury Case?)

What are the limits of these cases? The Sovereign Immunity Act allows lawsuits against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for injuries resulting from:

  • Car accidents. Injured drivers, pedestrians, or bicyclists may seek damages after a car accident in which the at-fault driver was a government employee, or was on official government business at the time of the crash.
  • Medical malpractice, including administration of vaccines. Medical malpractice by a government employee or health care facility may be grounds for an injury claim against the Pennsylvania government.
  • Care, custody, or control of personal property or animals. If a person is injured because a government agency or employee negligently stored, moved, or controlled an item or animal in its possession, the injured person may seek damages. However, the Sovereign Immunity Act specifically states that if a person is injured by negligent handling of radioactive materials, the government is not responsible.
  • Premises liability. An injured person may bring a premises liability claim for a slip and fall or similar accident caused by a dangerous condition on government property.
  • Liquor liability (dram shop law). Dram shop laws allow a person injured by an intoxicated individual to seek damages both from that person and from the place that sold or served the alcohol, if certain conditions exist. Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act extends this liability to the state government in some cases.
  • Negligent maintenance of roadways. If a pothole or other dangerous condition causes injury, the injured person may be able to seek damages from the state government, if the state was responsible for maintaining the roadway where the injury took place

Procedure and Damage Caps

Under Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes section 5522, the injured person must send written notice of their claim to the relevant government agency (and to the Attorney General if the claim is against the state) within six months of the occurrence of the underlying incident. This notice must include:

  • name and residence address of the claimant
  • date, hour, and approximate location of the accident, and
  • name and residence or office address of any attending physician.

Failure to send this written notice within six months will likely result in the dismissal of any lawsuit the claimant later tries to file over the incident.

Additionally, the Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act limits the amount of money that an injured person can recover from the government. Under Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes section 8528, the government's liability is limited to $250,000 to any one claimant over a single incident, and $1 million total over a single incident.

Bringing A Claim Against a Local or Municipal Government: The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

Many states use the same statute to govern both tort claims against the state and tort claims against local and municipal governments. Pennsylvania does not. Claims against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are governed by the Sovereign Immunity Act; claims against local or municipal governments, like cities and towns, are governed by thePolitical Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

Under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, a local or municipal government can be held liable for specific types of injury claims if the government employee responsible was acting "within the scope of his office or duties" and if the injured person could have sued if the person who allegedly caused the harm was a private person.

Like the Sovereign Immunity Act, the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act specifies certain categories of injuries for which a lawsuit may be brought, and the two laws mostly overlap on covered incidents.

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