‘Government immunity’ in Colorado limits liability
Vail, CO, Colorado
As if you didn’t already know, the government ” the guys who write the laws ” have stacked the deck against you. If you’re injured by the government, the normal rules of law do not apply.
The Colorado Governmental Immunity Act pertains to claims “in tort” against governmental bodies and/or government employees. First to understanding then, is knowing what, precisely, is a tort? It is also necessary to understand how the state treats the idea of “sovereign immunity.”
A tort is a private civil (as opposed to criminal) action, which has three parts: 1) existence of a legal duty to the party injured; 2) breach of that duty; and 3) damage to the injured party. As an example, when I drive my car, I undertake a duty of care to all whom I encounter. If I breach that duty, say by inattention while chatting on my cell phone, and ram the beejeesus out the car in front of me, causing it (and/or the persons in it) harm, since the damage flows directly from the breach of my duty of care, I will likely be held liable in tort.
A “sovereign” is a chief or ruler. Sovereign immunity is a concept which holds that the ruler is immune from certain liabilities to which the rest of us are held. Historically, the federal and state governments (and, derivatively, cities and towns) were absolutely immune from tort liability arising from activities which were governmental in nature.
Most jurisdictions (including Colorado in 1972) have abandoned this doctrine in favor of permitting tort actions with certain limitations. Thus is the nature and character of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, which permits certain tort actions to proceed against the government with strictly held requirements.
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Simply, while the act recognizes that there must be compensation for certain wrongs committed by the government, the amount which may be awarded for those wrongs, and the types of wrongs for which compensation is available, are limited. So too, is the procedure for making claim against the government.
While normally, the statue of limitations for a tort is one or two years, notice of a claim must be given within 180 days of discovery of the injury.
The 180-day limit in the act is strictly upheld. Further, the notice must be in writing, made to the appropriate governmental bodies.
Even if you follow all procedures, only certain types of wrongs and injuries are covered.and recovery may be had only for certain kinds of injuries.
The Act provides, that “A public entity shall be immune from liability in all claims…” but is waived for injuries resulting from the operation of a motor vehicle (except emergency vehicles); the operation of any public hospital, correctional facility; a dangerous condition of any public building; a dangerous condition of a public highway, road or street; the operation and maintenance of public utilities, parks and swimming pools; and other similar, enumerated circumstances and settings.
Even if liability is proven, damages are capped to $150,000 for injury to one person and $600,000 for two or more injured persons. No single person may recover more than $150,000. A public entity may not be held liable for punitive damages, nor damages for outrageous conduct except in a few circumstances.
Under provisions of the act, no action may be brought until the claim has been refused or 90 days after notice of the claim has lapsed without governmental response. The act generally does not affect the way a lawsuit is prosecuted.
While Colorado’s immunity law is in some ways laudatory, it in some ways fosters unequal justice. If you are injured by a private physician, say, or by a public one, the damages which may be awarded to you for the same harm can be, and often are, substantially unequal.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” He may be reached at 926-4461 or by e-mail at email@example.com