Alice in Traffic Land

Suppose that a government official drives a car carelessly while on government business and hits you causing you horrible injuries.  Are you entitled to compensation for your injuries?

In Colorado, if the government owns or leases the car, the answer is yes (the answer would also be yes, if the driver was anyone who wasn’t on government business).  But, if the government employee was driving his own car and being reimbursed for mileage, instead, the answer is no.  In that case, you get nothing, not from the government employee’s private insurance company, and often, not even from your own insurance company.This irrational rule is the latest unintended consequence of  a poorly written provision of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, compounded by a stingy reading of the act by Colorado’s Supreme Court. 

These consequences are often dire for the victim, because Colorado no longer has “no fault” car insurance.  In the days of “no fault” basic compensation for injuries was provided by your own insurance company, and you sued the driver at fault only in the most serious cases for the excess harm you suffered over your “no fault” insurance coverage.  Now, if you have only basic car insurance, it does not cover your injuries.  Instead, it only covers injuries to people you carelessly hurt.

It is unlikely that the people who wrote the law intended to leave out people hit by careless government employee drivers with reimbursed mileage.  It was, in all likelihood, simply an oversight.  In the private sector, someone driving their own car is liable for injuries they personally cause, even when their employer is not. The people drafting the governmental immunity law probably incorrectly assumed that the same was true in the public sector.  Also, before Colorado abolished “no fault insurance”, something that happened long after this governmental immunity law was written, it didn’t matter in all but the very most serious accidents, and even then, partial compensation for basic medical losses was available.

But, that doesn’t do anything to help someone hit by a government employee being reimbursed for mileage, who can negligently hurt others on the road with impunity under Colorado law as it stands today.

In American law, the general rule is that government is immune to being sued, without its permission.  This is called “sovereign immunity” because in England, suits against the government named the King (or Queen) as a party, and the King (or Queen) could not be sued in his own courts without his permission.

In fact, the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act gives citizens permission to sue in most common situations (like car accidents and slip and fall situations in government buildings) where citizens could sue a private individual.  The main purpose of the act is to prevent people from suing the government on exotic theories relating to uniquely governmental activities that boil down to a claim that the goverment has a duty to make everyone happy.

But, quirks in the way these exceptions are drafted create weird exceptions to the general rule.

In the understatement of the year, the Colorado Supreme Court notes “that governmental immunity ‘is, in some instances, an inequitable doctrine.'”  So, in Colorado, if you incur $200,000 of medical bills and lose your livelihood for the rest of your life because of a car accident caused by a clearly at fault driver who happens to be driving his own vehicle on governmental business, that is just your tough luck.

No bills to end a status quo where government employees on government business can injure others with impunity is on the legislative agenda this year, probably because people injured in this situation don’t have a lobbyist. 

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