Sovereign Immunity in Suits Against Government Entities in Florida – Graham v. Scott

Lawsuits often come with a number of complicated issues, whether you’re suing your employer for worker’s compensation benefits, seeking damages from a shoddy product manufacturer or looking to hold a store owner liable for unsafe conditions on the premises. Suing a government entity, however, comes with its own distinct batch of hurdles. Chief among them is the principle of sovereign immunity, which the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida recently described in Graham v. Scott.

Ms. Graham sued Mike Scott, the Sheriff of Lee County, and deputy Brian Gardner following a May 2012 incident in which Gardner allegedly tased her without provocation. According to Graham, she was shopping at a local convenience store when Grander and another deputy stopped her and demanded to search her. Graham refused and Gardener responded with the taser. She wasn’t searched or arrested and wasn’t considered a suspect in any investigation, according to the Court.

In addition to a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, Graham also alleged claims against Scott for battery, negligent training and supervision and false imprisonment, asserting that he should be held vicariously liable for Gardner’s actions. The Court dismissed the negligent training and supervision claim, however, finding that it was barred by sovereign immunity.

City, county and state government entities generally enjoy immunity from lawsuits alleging tort liability based upon actions that involve an entity’s “discretionary” functions. “A discretionary function consists of a governmental act that involves an exercise of executive or legislative power, such that, for the court to intervene by way of tort law, it inappropriately would entangle itself in fundamental questions of policy and planning,” the Court explained, quoting the Florida Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Henderson v. Bowden. On the other hand, the court noted that “operational” functions are those that merely reflect decisions as to how policy and planning decisions are implemented.

In this case, Graham alleged that Scott failed to properly train Gardner concerning the appropriate use of force and to supervise the officer’s use of his taser. She further argued that Scott negligently failed to retrain, suspend or fire Gardner following pervious instances in which he improperly used the taser.

But Graham didn’t oppose Scott’s assertion that the claim concerned discretionary decisions as to how to train, supervise and retain officers. Instead, she asked for leave to amend the complaint in response to Scott’s motion to dismiss the claim. Noting that federal rules provide that leave to amend a pleading “shall be freely given when justice so requires,” the Court dismissed the claim and granted Graham leave to amend her complaint.

Sovereign immunity is just one of several legal issues that a person thinking about suing a government entity must consider. It is important to seek the advice of an experienced, competent personal injury attorney prior to filing suit.

The South Florida personal injury lawyers at Anidjar and Levine represent clients in personal injury cases throughout the region, including in Coral Springs, Boca Raton and Hollywood. We are happy to discuss your potential claim in a free initial consultation. You can reach the firm’s Ft. Lauderdale offices at 800-747-3733 or contact us online.

Related blog posts:

Florida Negligence 101 – Stilson v. Valley Fine Foods

The Statute of Limitations in Florida Negligence Cases – Cisko v. Diocese of Steubenville

Negligence and Obvious Danger in Florida Personal Injury Cases – Rodriguez v. Akal Security