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Published: 2008-03-26

You Can Sue City Hall

NOT SO LONG AGO, you really couldn't sue city hall or almost any government agency. The old doctrine of sovereign immunity made governments immune from suits unless they consented to be sued (fat chance). However, in almost every jurisdiction you now have the opportunity to recover damages if you're injured through the negligence of a government worker, or because of poorly designed or maintained government property.

Good thing, too, because the many levels of government are very much involved in our lives. Government agencies range from huge federal departments to your local park district or school system. They maintain offices and facilities that we visit every day, and they employ millions of people, who drive hundreds of thousands of official cars and trucks. Add this all together - along with an inevitable dose of human fallibility - and you're sure to get actions or failures to act that injure people or their property.

What to Do If Injured. The good news is that if you slip and fall on a badly maintained staircase at a government building, or a garbage truck wipes out your hedge, or your car is sideswiped by a school bus, you probably can seek to recover damages. The federal government and most states have laws that authorize liability suits, generally for a wide range of negligence, if not for the whole spectrum of possible negligence.

As in any instance when you're injured and believe you might have legal recourse, your first step should be to consult your lawyer. Explain what happened, and provide as much information as possible about the incident, including names of witnesses, medical reports, estimates of damages, etc. It's important that you see your lawyer as soon as possible, since you may not have as much time to file against the government as you would against a private business.

You may have to take some extra steps, such as filing a claim (in a short period) with a government agency. If that claim is denied, you'll have another relatively short period in which to file suit.

You also may find that the government has capped the amount you can potentially recover, and that certain types of suits - medical malpractice against a government hospital or personal injury suit against a legislator or judge in his or her official capacity, for example - may be precluded.

However, the most common kinds of suits - such as auto collisions - will be permitted, as will suits for certain kinds of negligence (not maintaining a lighthouse, improperly designing a road) that are uniquely governmental. All this means that the old days when "the King could do no wrong" are over, and you very probably have a right to a day in court.