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Can Cities Claim ‘Sovereign Immunity’?

August 26, 2010

After a city trash truck malfunctioned and crushed the rear of a man's 2007 Toyota Camry, the man says the city of Norfolk, Va. claimed "sovereign immunity" in the case, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

Sean Anderson said city officials told him that Norfolk would pay for $2,800 in damages. After five weeks, he says he was told the city claimed "sovereign immunity." Sovereign immunity is a concept dating to English common law that government is exempt from most civil claims. The law is complicated, and at times cities pay liability claims.

Anderson paid the $500 insurance deductible and the car is being repaired. The city attorney said the city agreed to reimburse him for the $500 deductible, but defended the city's decision not to pay the entire claim. The city is self-insured, meaning all claims are paid directly from taxpayer funds.

The driver of the trash truck was collecting refuse containers, an act that was governmental in nature, the city attorney said, and subject to sovereign immunity. The city attorney added that sovereign immunity protects taxpayers when private insurance is available to pay.

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