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.”
A power outage has hit over 4,300 Dominion Energy customers across Alexandria, from Seminary Hill to Del Ray. Dominion Energy said there are 4,364 customers without power in the affected…
Good Tuesday morning, Alexandria! 🌤️ Today’s weather: Mostly cloudy, then gradually becoming sunny, with a high near 76. Northeast wind around 10 mph. At night: Increasing clouds, with a low…
A 27-year-old Maryland man has been charged with robbing two separate Alexandria banks in March and April. Jaquan Royal, of Prince George’s County, was arrested on May 24 in connection…
It’s been another busy week in Alexandria as the city heads into Memorial Day weekend. For those driving this weekend, be aware that some of the major roads are likely…
Are you seeking a confidential space where you can explore your emotions, overcome challenges, and find inner peace? Look no further than our dedicated psychotherapy service! We understand that life can be overwhelming at times, and we’re here to support you every step of the way.
At Peaceful Mind Solutions, our passion lies in helping individuals like you navigate life’s complexities and find the strength to thrive. Our skilled and compassionate therapist is committed to creating a warm, non-judgmental environment where you can express your thoughts and feelings openly. With our personalized approach, we tailor each session to address your unique needs and empower you to overcome obstacles.
Through evidence-based techniques and a deep understanding of the human mind, our therapist will guide you on a transformative journey of self-discovery. Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, relationship issues, or simply seeking personal growth, we’re here to provide guidance and practical tools for lasting change.
Time flies when you’re having fun! The T.C. Williams High School Class of 1973 will hold its 50th reunion July 21-23, 2023 in Alexandria. All graduates and their adult nears and dears are welcome. Events include a Friday evening icebreaker, Saturday dinner dance, and a Sunday brunch. For more information: tcwilliams73.com, 770.789.3534.
Spring Fling at Rising Sol Yoga School
Join us for a day of FREE hot yoga. Experience our class styles and meet our teachers. Buy a bite at the Bake Sale to benefit The Carpenter’s Shelter, peruse some special vendors, take advantage of in-person only discounts on