Sovereign Immunity And The Public Duty Doctrine

Posted by Benjamin P. Melnick | Dec 18, 2020 | 0 Comments


Bringing a claim against the government can be tricky for a number of reasons, from learning who the correct agency might be, to getting proper service of a tort claim notice, to litigating a claim against the government and its vast resources.  Another consideration is whether the claim being brought is the right type of claim.

What Kinds of Injury Claims Can be Brought Against Governmental Entities? 

To answer that, we need to take a historical detour.  Based on the English common law tradition, the government of the United States held itself out as “sovereign” which meant they had the power to rule the land. As a result, it held itself immune from liability in many respects, particularly from injury claims. The same is largely true of state and local governments, too.

However, Washington abolished sovereign immunity in 1961 for tort claims. RCW 4.92.090. Now that the door was open for liability against the government—for example if a governmental utility worker or school bus driver caused a collision, or even —new law started to develop.

Element of Negligence

One of the elements of negligence is the existence of a legal duty.  Although the government can be sued for injuries, the claim has to be based on a violation of a duty owed to a specific person or group of people, and not merely a general obligation owed to the public.  This limitation on governmental liability is called the public duty doctrine

It can be difficult to tell precisely what that means. Again, for various reasons, consult an attorney before bringing an action against a governmental entity. Where there is concern that the action is based on a governmental agency just not doing its job, the claim may be barred by the public duty doctrine.


About the Author

Benjamin P. Melnick

Ben Melnick joined the firm in 2018. He graduated from Washington State University with a Bachelor's degree in 2010, and went on to earn his Juris Doctorate from Gonzaga University School of Law. In 2016, he was named as the Clark County Bar Association's Rising Star. His practice focuses on personal injury, auto accidents, biking accidents, wrongful death, and insurance disputes. Outside work, Ben likes spend time with his wife outdoors—mostly running, hiking, and skiing—and playing soccer.


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