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Outlining Massachusetts’ stance on sovereign immunity

Quincy residents who slip, fall, or suffer any form of an injury-sustaining accident on another person’s property likely know that if they believe negligence contributed to their plight, they may choose to bring a civil action against the property owner. However, such accidents do not always happen on private property. What if one injures him or herself on public or government land? Given that either the federal or state government is the property owner, can one still sue for compensation?

For many years in the U.S., the answer to that question would be no. Federal, state, and even local governments were at one time under the protection of a legal principle known as sovereign immunity. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School defines this philosophy as immunity from tort liability for all government agencies. However, in 1946, the Federal Tort Claims Act was passed, in which the federal government waived its right to sovereign immunity, effectively opening the door to lawsuits against federal agencies and employees. The right was given to the states to determine if they would follow suit.

Massachusetts’ stance on sovereign immunity can be found in Title IV Chapter 258 of the state’s General Laws. There, it states that public employers may be held liable for the negligent actions of employees up to $100,000. Cities and municipalities may also indemnify elected or appointed officials for up to $1 million. In applying this to premises liability, it could mean that an official or employee’s actions or omissions which may have contributed to hazardous conditions could leave his or her employing agency exposed to a liability claim. In such an event, it may be responsible for the aforementioned amounts, after which the employee may be liable to repay the remainder of a settlement or jury award.  

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