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Sovereign Immunity Complicates Lawsuits Against Governments

The St. Petersburg Times recently ran an article on the complications faced by two sisters who are trying to track down the truth about their mother’s death. Their mother, Anne Talley, died after going into cardiac arrest at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in 2007. The sisters, one of whom was on the scene that night, dispute claims about how quickly the casino staff called 911 after Talley collapsed and what other steps they took to treat her before emergency medical technicians arrived. They want the casino to release records that could end the dispute — but because the casino is owned by the Seminole Tribe, they cannot force the issue. The Seminoles, as a sovereign nation, are immune from lawsuits under the legal concept of sovereign immunity.

Sovereign immunity is a legal concept saying governments can’t be sued, simply because they are governments. That includes Indian tribes, whose land is technically a kind of foreign nation. It also applies to the federal government, states and many local governments. Governments often waive their immunity for specific purposes, such as a lawsuit alleging wrongdoing by government officials, but they’re under no special obligation to do so. In fact, when they do lift it, they frequently make it more complicated and difficult to sue them than it would be to sue a private individual or business. For example, many government agencies require you to go through a non-judicial grievance process before you may sue, or notify them that you plan to sue within a very short time after an accident.

The idea behind sovereign immunity is to protect public funds (and thus taxpayers) from lawsuits that could bankrupt them. But in an age when governments can and do get liability insurance, it’s hard to see this doctrine as anything other than a convenient way for governments to avoid responsibility for their own actions, or the actions of their employees. Because the Seminoles decline to turn over the records or simply settle, the sisters have no other recourse. In fact, the article notes that they lost their lawyer because there was nothing else he could do for them. That may all be perfectly legal, but it denies them access to justice, the chance to file a Florida wrongful death lawsuit and perhaps peace of mind over their mother’s death. (Victims of cruise ship injuries who have signed unfair contracts are in a similar situation.)

Because of these severe restrictions on lawsuits against the government, I always tell clients with these claims to act as quickly as possible after an accident. If you are suing a government entity that has waived its immunity, you often must still meet requirements with very strict deadlines — some as short as 30 days. If you’re considering this kind of claim, I urge you to contact my firm, Cohn, Smith & Cohn, as soon as possible to preserve your access to the courts. We offer free consultations, so there’s no risk in speaking to us to learn about your rights and your options.

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