Bill to scale back immunity to lawsuits stalls

RICHMOND

A bill to scale back local government’s immunity from lawsuits involving negligent workers has stalled in a House of Delegates subcommittee.

Del. Kenny Alexander’s measure was inspired by the death of homeless man, 52-year-old Michael Knockett, who was run over by a Virginia Beach trash truck last June.

Earlier this month, a Beach Circuit Court judge ruled the city can’t be sued in the man’s death because it occurred during routine work and thus falls under sovereign immunity protection in the law.

Alexander’s bill would have made local governments subject to a state law that exposes Virginia to liability for property damage and personal injury or death “caused by the negligent or wrongful act” of an on-duty government worker performing a job.

The current state liability cap is $100,000. Alexander’s bill contemplated the same limit for localities.
It effectively died Wednesday when no one on the House Courts of Justice’s civil law subcommittee seconded a motion to act on it.

“Localities should be accountable for the negligence and wrongful acts” of employees, said Alexander, D-Norfolk, noting that some of the people injured are the breadwinners for their families.

Under current law, Alexander said, all a locality can say if its workers are involved in an accident that incapacitates or seriously injures someone is “I’m sorry.”

“Well, ‘sorry’ doesn’t cut it,” he said.

Mark Flynn of the Virginia Municipal League cautioned that lawsuits could put small Virginia towns and counties with modest budgets “out of business.”

Virginia “has a pretty deep pocket relative” to smaller localities and “can afford the consequences” of paying damages that some local governments can’t, he said.

Court precedent holds that sovereign immunity does not apply in cases of gross negligence by government workers.

Knockett’s family argued in its lawsuit that the actions of city workers were “grossly negligent,” but the judge disagreed. The judge’s decision doesn’t end the family’s claim against the workers themselves.

A separate measure by Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, would direct the General Assembly’s oversight agency to study the costs localities incurred in connection to property damage and personal injury claims over the past five years, and the costs they could have faced without sovereign immunity.

That proposal is scheduled to be heard by a House subcommittee this afternoon. A similar study resolution was left in a Senate committee last year.

Julian Walker, (804) 697-1564, julian.walker@pilotonline.com

Please contact us if you have questions or need legal assistance.
Tucker Griffin Barnes P.C.
Charlottesville, Virginia
434-973-7474
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