The Role of Sovereign Immunity in North Carolina Premise Liability Cases Discussed in Seabolt v. County of Albemarle

Immunity is a key concept in many North Carolina premise liability cases that occur on government property.

When you are injured on government property, you may be confused about your legal rights. Our experienced Carolina injury attorneys want to help you get the award you deserve.
In a recent Virginia case, the court delves into questions surrounding sovereign immunity classifications for governments in potential premise liability claims. Seabolt v. County of Albemarle, No. 110733 (Va. Apr. 20, 2012).

Sovereign immunity was created by statute to protect federal, state and local governments from lawsuits which would result in taxpayer money being awarded to victims of government agents’ civil wrongs. When someone sues the federal, state or local government, the government can raise the defense of sovereign immunity and the case may be dropped. Where a case is dropped by the court because of sovereign immunity it is because this immunity eliminates the courts subject matter jurisdiction over the cause of action.

This immunity has been limited through the creation of a legislative act referred to as the Federal Tort Claims Act. The purpose of this act is to waive immunity in instances where the claim arose because a government agent or officer acted negligently in the course of their employment causing injury to another person. This act has been adopted by the states in a variety of ways.

In this case, Seabolt (plaintiff) was injured while she was on a playground that belonged to the County of Albemarle (defendant) in Virginia. The previous court hearing this case found that the plaintiff’s injuries were the result of a county employee who negligently maintained the premises. Plaintiff looked to Virginia Code ยง15.2-1809 which dealt with a counties liability where it is operating a recreational facility, park or playground. This statute explicitly states that a county can be held liable for the damages caused because of the gross negligence of a county employee.

The defendant argued that it could not be held liable because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Additionally, it stated that the above referenced state statute did not apply to counties because it was only a waiver of liability to cities and towns.

The court in this case looks to two critical legal concepts. First, the court distinguishes the difference between being held liable for an employee’s negligence and being held liable for the damages. Secondly, the degree of the employee’s negligence is integral to the applicability of the statute. If an employee is grossly negligent, a county can be held liable; however, where an employee is simply negligent a county is not held liable for the damages.

Gross negligence is a type of action or omission on the part of someone who owes a duty of care that amounts to extreme carelessness and/or egregious behavior. Regular negligence is where someone breaches the duty of care but the action or omission is not extreme.

Although every state has different immunity statutes, the court in Seabolt points to the Virginia Tort Claims Act which identifies that the statutory limitations on sovereign immunity are not extended to county governments.

Therefore, any county, city or town in the Commonwealth of Virginia is immune from liability where a person is injured because of the gross negligence of a county, city or town employee acting within the scope of their employment.

If you have been injured contact North Carolina injury attorneys at Lee Law Offices to schedule a free appointment today. Call 800-887-1965.

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