Overcoming Sovereign Immunity as a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Barrier in Washington

Sovereign immunity refers to the legal doctrine that protects governmental entities from civil lawsuits without their consent. This means that generally, you cannot sue the government or government employees for wrongful acts committed within the scope of their duties. However, sovereign immunity should not be an absolute barrier for Washington families seeking justice after the wrongful death of a loved one. There are several ways to overcome or get around sovereign immunity in a wrongful death case.

File Suit Against the Individual Government Employee

While government entities themselves are often immune from lawsuits, individual government employees are not necessarily immune. If the wrongful death was caused by the negligent or wrongful acts of a specific government employee, you may be able to file suit against that employee personally. For example, if a Washington police officer shoots and kills your family member wrongfully, you could potentially sue the officer for wrongful death. The legal analysis will turn on whether the employee was acting within the scope of their duties or acted in bad faith.

Find an Exception to Sovereign Immunity

There are both statutory and common law exceptions to sovereign immunity. For instance, the Federal Tort Claims Act provides a limited waiver of sovereign immunity for torts committed by federal government employees. Many states also have tort claims acts that allow lawsuits against state entities or employees for certain tortious conduct. Beyond statutory exceptions, court-created exceptions also exist for things like violations of constitutional rights by government actors. An experienced attorney can analyze whether any exceptions may apply to overcome immunity in your case.

Sue in Federal Court

Sovereign immunity may bar state law claims against state entities or employees in state court. However, the legal doctrine does not necessarily prohibit federal claims against state actors in federal court. Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act allows civil suits in federal court against state officials for constitutional rights violations. For example, if your family member was killed due to excessive police force, you may be able to bring a Section 1983 Fourth Amendment claim in federal court.

Seek Consent to Sue from the Government Entity

Governments can consent to civil lawsuits, thus waiving sovereign immunity. Some states and agencies have administrative claim procedures that allow you to request consent to file suit. If consent is granted either expressly or by lack of response, you can proceed with a lawsuit against the governmental entity. Consent may also be granted on a case-by-case basis if requested, though this is less common.

Challenge the Constitutionality of the Immunity Law

As a last resort, you may be able to argue that a particular sovereign immunity law is unconstitutional, either under your state constitution or the U.S. Constitution. For example, it could potentially be argued that an absolute bar on wrongful death claims against the state violates due process rights. A creative constitutional challenge may convince a court to strike down or limit an overly broad sovereign immunity law.

Sovereign immunity should not completely shut the courthouse doors to families seeking accountability after the tragic and wrongful death of a loved one at the hands of a government employee or entity in Washington. With perseverance and creativity, there are often still avenues to pursue justice despite this formidable legal obstacle.

If a loved one has died because of negligence by a government employee or entity, contact us for advice. We have offices in 32 locations and 19 states, including Washington, Alabama, and Arizona.

Call now for a free consultation on (888) 477-0597.