A recent lawsuit brought against the City of Denver alleged that a street sweeper caused permanent brain injuries to a bicyclist caught in (and tossed by) the machine’s powerful brushes. However negligent this act may be judged to have been, the City has a strong defense—that it is protected from liability because of its sovereign immunity.

This doctrine provides civil liability protection to federal, state, and local government bodies for injuries alleged to have been perpetrated by an employee or worker acting within the scope of his or her duties. Read on to learn more about how this doctrine applies to injuries caused by public workers and the options that are available to secure one’s legal rights when injured by a public employee or entity.

Are There Exceptions to Sovereign Immunity Under Colorado Law?

Because it’s deemed important for citizens to have a right of action against any person or entity who causes them injury (albeit similarly important to insulate governments from excessive legal defense costs lest they be sued into bankruptcy), most states, including Colorado, have carved out some exceptions to sovereign immunity. Through the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (GIA), public entities and actors are protected from lawsuit except under a few specific circumstances.

State workers or agencies who cause injury to civilians can be deemed liable for injuries resulting from negligence while:

  • Operating a motor vehicle
  • Operating a hospital, correctional facility, or public jail
  • Operating a public pool or water facility
  • Maintaining a dangerous condition within a governmental building (like rickety stairs or a malfunctioning elevator)
  • Maintaining a dangerous road condition
  • Failing to remove snow or ice within a reasonable time frame
However, even if an injury you’ve suffered falls within one of the sovereign immunity exceptions, there’s still a different procedure you’ll need to go through in order to gain clearance to file a civil lawsuit. Rather than simply filing a complaint for damages from personal injury in a Colorado trial court, as you would if you were injured by a random motorist or your neighbor, you’ll need to go through the formal tort claim process.

How Does the Tort Claim Process Differ From the Normal Personal Injury Process?

Within 182 days of an injury caused by a public worker or entity, the injured party will need to file a notice of tort claim with the Colorado Attorney General. This puts the government on notice that an injury has been suffered and allows the entity to determine whether it should make an offer to settle the claim or instead deny the claim entirely.

After a settlement offer has been made or a denial letter has been sent, the injured party may then be able to file a civil lawsuit in a Colorado trial court. The case will then proceed largely as any other personal injury claim, albeit only if the court determines that it’s a situation in which sovereign immunity has been waived or otherwise does not apply.

However, the failure to file a notice of tort claim prior to filing a civil claim can result in the summary dismissal of the lawsuit—sometimes with prejudice, preventing the victim from ever refiling or collecting monetary damages for injuries sustained. This is true even if a claim has merit; the jurisdictional limitations are strict and non-discretionary.

As a result, if you find yourself battling physical injuries or property damage due to governmental negligence, it’s crucial to seek legal advice before the tort claim period has expired to ensure you’ve done all you can to protect your own rights and ensure that you can be made whole.