Most personal injury lawsuits stem from the negligence of a private citizen or company. However, in some instances, government entities and employees engage in reckless or negligent behavior that causes harm to the public. The Virginia Tort Claims Act, the state constitution and Virginia Supreme Court decisions outline the circumstances under which a private citizen may file a civil claim against a government entity or employee. Cases involving a governmental entity are complex and require an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of Virginia procedural and statutory rules.
Generally, Virginia law provides counties and their employees with immunity from negligence claims; however, immunity does not extend to contractual or civil rights claims. Moreover, the law protects Virginia cities and towns and their employees from immunity for lawsuits stemming from negligence arising from “governmental activities.” The immunity does not cover “proprietary activities,” contractual claims, and civil rights actions. The law generally classifies “governmental activities” as those conducted for the common good of citizens. In contrast, proprietary activities are those that private entities have traditionally done for a pecuniary benefit. For example, governmental activities typically include police work, firefighting, social services, garbage removal, hospitals, jails, engineering of water and sewer systems. On the other hand, proprietary activities are those such as street and sidewalk maintenance, markets, utility company work, airports, and public housing services.
While the rule seemingly provides governmental entities with broad protection, many exceptions exist. Injury victims may still have a claim if the entity engaged in certain conduct such as intentional acts, gross negligence, willful and wanton negligence, unauthorized actions outside the scope of employment, non-discretionary or ministerial actions, and some contractual claims. The distinction between activities can be challenging to parse out. For instance, news reports described a collision between a Virginia State trooper and another vehicle. Officials noted that injuries occurred, but they did not specify who the victims were. However, four people received medical treatment, and two were airlifted to a children’s hospital.