Post Content

The 225 Years of Legal Conflict Behind Alexandria’s Refusal to Pay Trash Truck Damages

If your property is damaged by a city vehicle, there’s a good chance you could be out of luck when it comes to seeking payment.

With its blue background and city seal, the marker set up in the yard at Shuter’s Hill within eyeshot of the backside of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial could be mistaken for an official sign, but the sign tells the story of one resident’s struggle with the City of Alexandria over an archaic legal precedent.

According to the sign, a city truck struck the fence on May 22 and was captured on video, but the city has claimed sovereign immunity — a term derived from British common law doctrine that means the government cannot be sued without its permission.

This isn’t the first time damages from an garbage truck has led to frustrations over sovereign immunity. Across Virginia, there have been several instances of localities citing sovereign immunity when faced with costly liability charges, according to Washingtonian.

Craig Fifer, a spokesman for the City of Alexandria, said logistically that paying claims would necessitate an increase in taxes and fees, reductions in services, or other savings:

The City’s services are designed and operated to provide the maximum benefit to the community.  Under federal and state laws and court rulings, the City is generally not liable for damages caused in the course of providing core government services. While the City conducts extensive planning and training to avoid damaging property, some damage does occur given the vast scope of City operations. Exemption from these claims saves a significant amount of money every year for taxpayers as a whole.  If the City were to pay claims for which it is not legally liable, it would necessitate some combination of increases in taxes and fees, reductions in services, or savings in other areas.

The City is expected to defend itself against claims for which it is not legally liable. If the claim involves a core government function (including trash collection), sovereign immunity would apply. If the claim involved another situation (such as the operation of a City vehicle while not performing a core government function), sovereign immunity would not apply and the claim would be paid if appropriate.

Jonathan Siegel, a law professor at George Washington University, said the arguments over sovereign immunity aren’t new.

“This has been around forever,” Siegel said. “It’s a fundamental feature of government and it causes all kinds of problems for centuries. Ever since the founding of the nation, it’s been legally true that governments have sovereign immunity.”

Questions over sovereign immunity were one of the first debated in the newly independent United States. Siegel said after the Revolutionary War, many states that took out loans to finance military operations were not able to pay back their bonds. The first amendment to the Constitution that wasn’t part of the Bill of Rights, the 11th Amendment, restricted the ability of individuals to sue states in federal court.

Whether this applies to cities depends on state law, Siegel said. In Virginia, Professor Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Leadership at George Mason University, said that legal protection extends to cities.

“The city is precluded under Virginia law from waiving sovereign immunity, as are all other Virginia localities,” said Shafroth. “From a Virginia Supreme Court decision City of Virginia Beach v. Carmichael: sovereign immunity is a rule of social policy, which protects the state from burdensome interference with the performance of its governmental functions and preserves its control over state funds.”

“Sovereign immunity applies to all Virginia cities and counties, with counties having immunity for both governmental and proprietary functions, while cities do not have immunity from the exercise of proprietary functions,” he added.

The test as to whether the function is proprietary or governmental is whether it’s contributing to the common good of all or whether there is a special corporate or pecuniary benefit, according to Fenon v. City of Norfolk.

Shafroth said there are still specific limits to that protection.

“Governmental functions, for example, are ministerial acts, such as the active collection of garbage, but such immunity does not extend to all actions related to the collection of refuse, such as driving a refuse truck to a repair shop to get it fixed,” Shafroth said.

The legal protections could be changed at the state level, Siegel said, but the incidents in which it applies are generally so isolated that there’s no political willpower behind the push.

“It’s in the power of the state legislature to change these things,” Siegel said. “But this tends to affect people one at a time so there’s no real organized lobby. No one imagines this is going to happen to them.”

Recent Stories

Except for the shots fired in the Braddock neighborhood, it’s been a relatively quiet week in Alexandria. The water was still settling on Monday after the big drop on Friday:…

Things are about to slow down in school zones. The Alexandria School Board on Thursday (October 6) unanimously approved a resolution requesting a reduction from 25 miles per hour to…

Home hunt highlights includes a 1 BD/1 BA condo with floor-to-ceiling windows and open living room.

A 5 BD/5 BA home with a fully fenced yard, fire pit and screened in porch is included in Just Listed.

Looking for a more convenient way to work out?

On the Go Fitness Pro offers in home personal training. We bring the gym to you, so you can save time and skip the hassle of going to the gym. Plus, our trainers are certified and experienced, so you can be sure you’re getting the best possible workout.

We provide all the equipment needed for a great workout or we can use the equipment that you have.

Read More

Submit your own Community Post here.

Are you tired of going to the gym? It might be the crowds, the locker room, waiting on equipment or the time it takes to commute to the gym.

Having a personal trainer come to your home will keep you accountable, save you time and allow you to workout in the comfort of your own home.

Skip the hassle of the gym and try our in-home personal training service.

Our services are reasonably priced, convenient, effective and are risk free.

Read More

Submit your own Community Post here.

Think BIG! About the Future of Movement

Join the City of Alexandria and Arlington County’s Initiative to Rethink Energy at our first ever electric vehicle (EV) and sustainable technologies showcase! Get inspired by seeing a variety of electric cars, scooters, bikes, motorcycles, police cars, buses, trucks and

Between Home and the Front: Book Talk and Signing

Join the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum on Zoom or in person at the museum for a special book talk with the curators behind Between Home and the Front: Civil War Letters of the Walters Family. A book signing will be


Subscribe to our mailing list