Generally, when a tragic accident occurs and someone is at fault, Virginia state law allows people injured in the accident to bring a civil lawsuit against the at-fault party in court. These lawsuits, if successful, can result in the injured victims receiving monetary compensation for their injuries, including money for lost wages, pain and suffering, and past and future medical bills. However, there are exceptions to whom you can sue and who can be held liable for accidents. An important doctrine to understand is sovereign (or governmental) immunity, which protects the government from personal injury lawsuits for actions arising out of or related to official duties. As a result, there are some cases in which accident victims may be unable to recover legally for their injuries because the responsible party is governmental.
To understand this concept, take a recent Virginia appellate court case that arose when a fire hydrant had an insufficient water source to fight a fire. According to the court’s written opinion, the case, a wrongful death lawsuit, was brought against the city when the deceased person died in a tragic fire. The firefighters who responded to the burning building attempted to get water from the closest fire hydrant, but the water flow was insufficient. The firefighters had to go to another hydrant, 1,000 feet away, and by the time that they returned with the water needed to fight the fire, the victim had died.
The victim’s estate brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the city. The city responded with a request to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity in Virginia protects a city from being sued for actions that it takes to carry out governmental functions. Because of that doctrine, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s case. The court reasoned that establishing and operating fire hydrants to help firefighters is a governmental function, and the victim’s estate could not bring suit against the city in this case.