Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case that may have wide-ranging implications for slip-and-fall plaintiffs injured on government land. In the case, Gibson v. United States of America, the court determined that the federal government’s normal sovereign immunity from tort lawsuits did not attach, and the case should proceed to trial.
Gibson v. United States: The Facts of the Case
The plaintiff, Gibson, suffered a fractured leg while he was on federal government property inspecting Federal Emergency Medical Association (FEMA) trailers that were scheduled to be later sold at auction. The evidence presented indicated that the trailers were on a several hundred-acre, fenced-in lot containing hundreds of trailers.
On the day in question, the plaintiff was with a FEMA employee inspecting the trailers. Some of the trailers had pull-out steps to assist with entry and exit, while others did not. For those that did not have steps, the FEMA employee had her own step ladder she carried with her. She would set up the step ladder along the side of the trailer and would enter and exit that way.
While visiting the final trailer, the FEMA employee used her portable step ladder to get into the trailer. The plaintiff did not request to use the steps, but the FEMA employee set up the steps in front of him. There was no problem as he ascended the stairs, but on the way out of the trailer the plaintiff fell as the stairs became unattached from the trailer. At the time, the FEMA employee was on her cell phone some 40 feet away.
The plaintiff sued the U.S. government under a premises liability theory, arguing that the government’s negligent maintenance of the property created an unreasonable risk. At trial, the government asserted its sovereign immunity, and the trial court granted the government’s request for dismissal. The plaintiff appealed.
On Appeal, the Plaintiff is Successful
The appellate court noted that the general rule in personal injury cases is that the government enjoys immunity, meaning it cannot be sued unless it consents. However, the court also noted that there was an exception for “discretionary” actions taken by the government, or its employees.
The court ultimately held that in determining how “potential customers” would enter and exit the trailer to inspect them was a discretionary action. Thus, the court continued to the next prong in the analysis: whether it made good policy sense to exclude the conduct from the government’s general immunity. The court determined that, since the government was essentially acting in a commercial fashion, granting immunity under these facts was not proper. Thus, the plaintiff’s case will proceed to trial.
Have You Been Injured in a Slip-and-Fall Accident?
If you or a loved one has recently been injured in a slip-and-fall accident, you may be entitled to monetary compensation. This may be the case even if the injury occurred on federal government property, although you will likely need to deal with the government’s claim of sovereign immunity. As noted above, the government’s immunity is not absolute and can be waived in certain circumstances. To learn more, call 410-654-3600 to set up a free consultation with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney.
More Blog Posts:
New Research Suggests Amateur Athletes May Also Be at Risk for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, December 17, 2015
Dangerous Products and Product Liability Lawsuits, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, January 12, 2016