Federal and state governments and employees engaged in their official duties are shielded from most private lawsuits by a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity. The doctrine stems from the centuries-old principle that the government itself cannot commit a legal wrong, though exceptions have evolved.
While cities in the U.S. are not technically considered to have sovereign status, they are similarly protected by state and federal laws.
In Flint, experts and plaintiffs’ attorneys have expressed hesitation over lawsuits filed against state departments and officials, saying the chance of success will be hindered by the sovereign immunity doctrine. But one Plaintiff’s lawyer sees a loophole.
[Plaintiff’s attorney Michael Pitt] said he believes the attorneys have a solid legal theory that renders governmental immunity irrelevant. The federal lawsuit, he said, claims Governor Snyder along with several state officials, violated the due process of Flint residents.
“If there’s a constitutional violation, the governmental immunity does not apply,” Pitt said. “It just does not apply. So we’ve filed a case in federal court … alleging a due process violation that the state of Michigan and its agents created a dangerous condition, and that the state and its actors are liable for the damages caused by this constitutional violation.”
It will be interesting to see how this legal loophole theory plays out in Federal Court and the possible effect it will have on other cities, states or local governments facing decaying water pipes and crumbling infrastructure.