Articles Posted in Government Liability

When we send our children to school, we expect that they will be safe and taken care of. Whether your children ride the school bus every day, walk, or get to school another way, there are always risks on the commute. When those risks, however, are created by negligent or reckless drivers, those who are responsible must be held accountable for their actions.

According to a recent local news report, a two-car accident near a local Washington, D.C. school has led to the community demanding change. Just inches from Kimball Elementary School, local authorities reported two cars colliding, which shut down nearby roads for several hours. The accident took place at a five-point intersection right next to the school. Two people were transported to a local hospital for treatment, but the severity of their injuries is unknown.

Witnesses and long-time residents of the neighborhood around the school claimed that crashes and speeding have been an ongoing issue for decades. While Washington, D.C. police have yet to release specifics on how the crash took place, neighborhood residents have been demanding speed bumps and speed camera installation for years to lower the prevalence of crashes. Fortunately, no students were outside at the time of the crash, but community members warn that it is only a matter of time before another accident takes place. The accident remains under investigation.

High-speed chases are a controversial issue that involves complex public policy and safety issues. While there may be a need for a high-speed police chase, these events can lead to severe injuries and death for Maryland motorists. The balance between apprehending those accused of a crime and the potential risk to the public is a challenging task; however, ultimately, public safety is paramount. Various studies have examined the impact of these cases, finding that high-speed police pursuit nearly 300 people each year. Of these fatalities, about two-thirds were traveling in the fleeing vehicle, while an overwhelming 30% were not involved in the chase. As such, many fatalities involve innocent Maryland motorists, passengers, and pedestrians.

Recently, Maryland news reports described fatalities stemming from a fatal-single vehicle crash occurring during a police pursuit. A motorist fled after police attempted to stop him for a traffic stop. While under pursuit, the driver lost control of their vehicle and crashed. Emergency responders transported one of the vehicle’s passengers to the hospital for non-life-threatening injuries; however, the second occupant suffered fatal injuries. State officials are continuing to investigate the accident.

Maryland maintains various rules that regulate the responsibility of local and state governmental entities. Under Maryland law § 19-103, police officers are not liable for injuries that stem from a police pursuit or any emergency. However, the immunity does not cover situations where the police officer was grossly negligent. Gross negligence refers to an “intentional failure” to perform a duty in the “reckless disregard” of the consequences of their actions. In other words, gross negligence occurs when an individual acts with wanton and willful disregard for the care and safety of others.

Many consider Washington D.C. “America’s Front Yard”, as the nation’s capital is home to many iconic memorials and museums. Every year, millions of people visit Washington D.C. to commemorate legacies, make their voices heard, and learn about our nation’s history. The vast amount of visitors at monuments and museums often leads to heavy vehicle and foot traffic. Although these institutions take steps to prevent injuries, the measures do not always address the extent of hazards and dangers that these places pose to guests, visitors, and employees.

Generally, property owners owe their visitors, guests, and employees a duty to keep their premises safe from dangers. However, the duty varies depending on the status of the business, the classification of the guest, and circumstances surrounding the injuries. The challenges only heighten when the injury occurs at a government building or property. Some common places where a Washington D.C. injury may occur include:

  • Supreme Court
  • Library of Congress
  • National Monument
  • U.S. Capitol
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
  • National Museum of African Art
  • National Air & Space Museum

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High-speed chases are an unfortunate yet common part of law enforcement duties in the United States. While these pursuits may be necessary, they also involve a significant amount of risk to anyone in the vicinity of the pursuit, such as the fleeing suspect, their passengers, pedestrians, bystanders, and other motorists. Although the essential purpose of a high-speed pursuit is to apprehend a fleeing suspect, officers should evaluate whether they can accomplish this apprehension by safer alternatives. The heavy flow of traffic and the number of bikers and pedestrians make high-speed police pursuits in Washington D.C. a dangerous prospect.

For instance, federal prosecutors in Washington D.C. recently charged an officer with various criminal charges following the death of a 20-year-old moped driver. According to one news source, police were pursuing the man because he rode his moped on a sidewalk without a helmet. The chase ensued into an alley, and when the man was exiting the narrow road, he slammed into another vehicle. Under Washington D.C. police regulations, officers cannot engage in a high-speed pursuit over minor traffic violations. The officers involved in the accident pleaded not guilty.

While the above report focuses on the criminal charges, these situations often elicit civil personal injury and wrongful death claims against law enforcement agencies. Unlike other types of accidents, those involve police cars typically involve complex governmental immunity laws. The Metropolitan Police Department police pursuit laws maintain that officers engaged in a pursuit must consider protecting human life and property. These officers must continually assess the conditions of the pursuit to determine whether to continue to stop the vehicle chase.

Washington D.C has a robust public transportation system and a growing cohort of cyclists; however, driving is still the most popular mode of transportation throughout the city. Thousands of people commute into Washington D.C. for work, business, and leisure. The growing number of cars, especially as schools and offices require in-person attendance, results in congested roadways. As such, Washingtonians and visitors are at risk of being involved in a car accident.

According to some reports, motorists driving in Washington D.C. are twice as likely to be involved in an accident compared to the national rate. While an accident can occur at any location, some Washington D.C. roadways and intersections are the sites of many accidents. These roadways and intersections include New York Ave. and Florida Avenue NE, 14th Street and U Street, NW, Pennsylvania Ave. and 12th Street, NW, 18th Street and Columbia Road, NW, and Pennsylvania Ave Anacostia Freeway SE.

These accidents can have devastating consequences on motorists, passengers, bystanders, pedestrians, and cyclists. For instance, Washington D.C. news sources recently described the tragic death of a 5-year-old girl. The report explained that the 5-year-old girl died while riding her bike near 14th and Irving Street, NE. Witnesses stated that the girl could not stop her bicycle and entered the intersection into the path of a Transit van crossing the area. The community gathered and is demanding changes to traffic safety in their area.

After a D.C. car accident, victims may be suffering from physical injuries as well as dealing with the financial losses of property damages, lost wages, and medical expenses. To hold a negligent party responsible for the victim’s losses after a crash, a victim may be able to file a Washington, D.C. negligence claim.

In a negligence claim after a car crash, a plaintiff has to prove that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, that the defendant deviated from the applicable standard of care, and that there is a causal relationship between that deviation and the plaintiff’s injury. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving these issues.

To show the applicable standard of care and that the defendant deviated from the applicable standard of care, an expert may be required if the subject area is beyond the knowledge of the average juror. To prove a causal relationship, a plaintiff must show that the defendant was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Proximate cause has two components: cause-in-fact and a “policy element.” In deciding whether an injury is a cause-in-fact of a plaintiff’s injury, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s negligent conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. Proximate caused has been a cause “which, in natural and continual sequence, unbroken by any efficient intervening cause, produces the injury, and without which the result would not have occurred.” The policy element of proximate cause limits liability based on the foreseeability of the injury—according to D.C. courts, a defendant may not be held liable if the chain of events that led to the plaintiff’s injury was “highly extraordinary in retrospect.” Generally, proximate cause is a question of fact for the jury to decide.

If an individual is injured in the District of Columbia and the local government may be at fault, a plaintiff will likely have to deal with the issue of governmental immunity. Under Washington, D.C. law, the municipal government may be immune from a civil lawsuit depending on the nature of the act. In Washington, D.C., the local government and its employees and agents are immune from suit depending on whether the act is discretionary or ministerial. The government is immune based upon its discretionary actions, but not immune from suit based upon its ministerial actions. Generally, a discretionary act is one that involved deliberation, decision, and judgment. A ministerial act is generally confined to following orders or performing a duty in which the employee has little choice. Whether an action is discretionary or ministerial often depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the case.

Local government employees also generally are protected under governmental immunity for their actions. They generally are protected as long as they are acting within their official capacity and within the scope of their employment and if they do not act with gross negligence. An individual may also act as an agent of a government entity, depending on the facts of the case.

Court Dismisses Medical Malpractice Suit Against University Based on Immunity

In a recent case before one state appeals court, that court considered whether a university was entitled to immunity after a doctor was sued at an affiliated hospital. In that case, the patient sought treatment from the doctor at his office at the hospital. The university provided healthcare services at that teaching hospital. The doctor was an employee of the university and made an agreement to provide care to patients at the hospital. The patient claimed that the doctor failed to prescribe anti-coagulants to the patient, which resulted in disabilities. The patient claimed that the hospital and the university were liable for the doctor’s actions as an agent of the university.

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Governmental immunity, historically referred to as sovereign immunity, is a legal theory that protects government personnel and agencies from civil lawsuits. The premise stems from the idea that governments would not be able to effectively function if they feared constant liability for all of their actions. However, to address the fundamental unfairness of this doctrine, many jurisdictions limit the amount of immunity that a governmental entity enjoys. These laws are generally referred to as “tort claims acts.” In Washington, D.C., individuals who believe they suffered damages because of the negligence of a government entity should contact an attorney to discuss their rights and remedies.

The U.S. Department of Education requires that teachers, principals, and other school administrators protect their students and provide them with appropriate educational environments. However, the law often protects these institutions from lawsuits. Additionally, lawsuits that can proceed often require plaintiffs to abide by burdensome filing and notice requirements.

Lawsuits against governments encompass many other complex issues. One issue is whether the potential defendant falls under the protected category. For instance, in some cases, a negligent university or college may enjoy governmental immunity protections, whereas another similar institution may not. This largely depends on the type of institution and the type of funding they receive from the government.

Filing a claim against a public school and its employees can be an uphill battle. This is particularly true because of the doctrine of qualified immunity. In a Washington, D.C. injury case, if a plaintiff files a claim against government officials, the officials are generally immune from suit as long as they are performing “discretionary functions.” Discretionary functions generally involve an element of judgment or choice.

Local schools are afforded extremely broad protection. In general, local schools are protected from liability for conduct that does not violate clearly established constitutional rights at the time of the conduct at issue and that is not carried out in bad faith. If qualified immunity is established, it acts as an absolute bar to the lawsuit.

In a recent state appellate court opinion, the plaintiff encountered immunity as a bar to their case. According to the decision, the plaintiff was a high school junior at a military school and was caught plagiarizing her homework. She admitted that she violated the school’s honor code, and was given a punishment of ten hours of physical exercises, which had to be completed one hour each day. The full hour of exercises had to be completed or the day would need to be repeated.

The law allows people injured in an accident to bring a civil negligence lawsuit against the responsible party. There are, however, some key exceptions that Washington, D.C. personal injury plaintiffs ought to understand when preparing to file a lawsuit. One of the most important is sovereign immunity, also known as governmental immunity.

The basic idea behind sovereign immunity is that states and governments are protected from negligence lawsuits arising out of their official duties. For D.C. plaintiffs, this means that there are some instances in which, when the government is responsible for their injuries, a plaintiff will not have legal recourse to recover compensation.

A recent Virginia appellate case illustrates the importance of sovereign immunity. According to the court’s written opinion, the case arose as a wrongful death lawsuit against the city for failing to adequately maintain fire hydrants. The deceased victim was killed in a fire when the firefighters, unable to get the needed water from the fire hydrant closest to the burning house, had to go to the next closest hydrant. This second fire hydrant was around 1,000 feet away, and by the time that the firefighters were able to get the necessary water, the victim had died.

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