It’s Good To Be The King — What Is “Sovereign Immunity”

Today in the case of Tina Lee v. State of Iowa,, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the State of Iowa, including all of its departments and agencies, cannot be used under the Family and Medical Leave Act in Iowa state court.  Such claims have to instead be brought in federal court.  The court’s decision was somehat based on the concept of “sovereign immunity.”  So what is sovereign immunity?

Sovereign immunity began with an old English legal maxim that “the king can do no wrong.”  Well, we don’t have monarchial kings in the United States, but we do have governments.  The principle of sovereign immunity has been transposed here to mean that you can’t sue the government unless it lets you.  This rule applies to most types of legal claims, including those for personal injury or wrongful death and car accidents.

Certainly the government has the power to expressly eliminate the government’s own sovereign immunity from suit and allow you to sue it.  Prime examples of that are federal and state laws under which you can sue the government in tort for personal injuries, etc.  Such laws include the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Iowa Tort Claims Act, and Iowa’s Governmental Subdivisions Tort Claim Act.  Each of those laws, subject to various procedural requirements, defenses, exceptions, exemptions, and immunities, allow you to sue the government under limited circumstances.

Another way that you can get around sovereign immunity and sue the government is through “implied” or “constructive” waiver.  Iowa’s courts (unlike the federal courts, which only recognize express waivers of sovereign immunity) have decided that since they’re the ones who made up the sovereign immunity rule, they have the power to take away sovereign immunity if they feel like it. Constructive waiver of sovereign immunity can occur when the state voluntarily enters into a legal relationship with a private citizen, such as a landowner or as a party to a contract.  At that point, it’s not fair to allow the government to engage with private citizens while simultaneously hiding behind the cloak of sovereign immunity.  In other words, the government is legally responsible and has no sovereign immunity for the legal relationships it voluntarily creates.  Otherwise, can you imagine having a contract with the state or a county or a city that the government could breach at will with no recourse to you?

Having said that, recognition of implied or constructive waiver of sovereign immunity is rare and has only occurred on a few occasions in special situations.  Generally, if you find yourself suing the government, you’re doing so because the state has expressly allowed you to do so by enacting an express statutory waiver of sovereign immunity.

Please feel free to contact me if you have a personal injury or wrongful death or products liability matter that you would like to discuss.   I can also help you with any employment law or labor law questions that you might have.  Please feel free to contact me for a free initial consultation about employment law or labor law.


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