Whether a county is entitled to sovereign immunity from admiralty lawsuits.
Northern Insurance Company has sued Chatham County, Georgia, to recover for payments made on a boat that suffered damages when one of the county's drawbridges malfunctioned. Chatham claims that it is immune from liability due to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. The issue before the Supreme Court is therefore whether counties and other municipalities are entitled to sovereign immunity from admiralty lawsuits. If the Court grants sovereign immunity, the quality of county-operated bridges may decline, insurance companies may raise their premiums, and the federal government may have to step in to impose extensive new regulations. If the Court holds that counties are not entitled to immunity, counties may have to dip into state funds to satisfy judgments rendered against it. This would lead to a depletion in resources, which may cause government-run programs like education and public welfare to suffer.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
In October 2002, James Ludwig sailed his boat on the Wilmington River. See Brief for Petitioner at 3. When he reached the Causton Bluff Bridge, he requested the draw be raised. See id. The bridge tender raised the spans, but as Ludwig's boat approached the bridge, one of the spans malfunctioned and hit his boat, causing over $130,000 in damages. See id.
As a result, Ludwig filed a claim with the boat's insurer, Northern Insurance Company of New York ("Northern"). See id. at 4. After paying the claim, Northern sued Chatham County-the owner, operator, and maintainer of the drawbridge. See id. at 2, 4. Chatham County denied Northern's claim, asserting that sovereign immunity protected the county from such lawsuits. See id. at 4. Chatham argued that any political subdivision of the state that exercised delegated state powers is an "arm of the state" entitled to common-law sovereign immunity. See id. The county reasoned that it could assert this immunity because the state had given it the authority to operate the bridge. See id. ?The trial court granted Chatham summary judgment because it agreed that this immunity extended to Chatham. See id. at 5.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed because it, too, agreed that the common law produced a "residual immunity" which would protect a political subdivision, such as Chatham County. See id. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine "[w]hether an entity that does not qualify as an 'arm of the state' for Eleventh Amendment purposes can nonetheless assert sovereign immunity as a defense to an admiralty suit."
While Georgia cannot be sued under maritime law on account of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, Georgia's counties and political subdivisions do not benefit from the same kind of immunity. See Brief for Petitioner at 7. Chatham County, however, does not assert Eleventh Amendment immunity. See Brief for Respondent at 6. Rather, it claims protection from an immunity that derives from the common law and extends to "arms of the state." Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 713, 756-757 (1999) To determine whether a governmental entity is an arm of the state, courts typically examine whether the entity exercises power delegated from the state or whether the entity performs a proprietary function. See Brief for Petitioner at 8-11.
Chatham argues that it is an arm of the state of Georgia. To support this argument, Chatham cites Broward County, Fl. v. Wickman, where the plaintiff's yacht struck an underwater abutment attached to a county-owned bridge. See Brief for Respondent at 8. In this case, the Fifth Circuit determined that, because the county owned the bridge and used power delegated by the state to operate the bridge, the county enjoyed sovereign immunity from a suit in admiralty. See id. Similarly, when affirming Chatham's immunity, the Eleventh Circuit referred to an unpublished decision, Continental Ins. Co. v. Chatham County. Ga., where the court deemed Chatham County an arm of the state because Chatham had exercised state power by acquiring the land and by constructing and operating the public highway and bridge at issue in the case. Zurich Ins. Co. v. Chatham County, No. 04-13308 (Cir. 11th 2005).
Northern nevertheless argues that the common law does not provide any "residual" sovereign immunity. See Brief for Respondent at 7. Rather, Northern claims that sovereign immunity is a unitary doctrine emanating from the Constitution which, as Chatham concedes, does not protect counties.? See id. Northern also argues that the Eleventh Circuit simply missed this point when it ignored precedents stating that sovereign immunity does not extend to municipalities, such as Chatham County. See id. at 8.
Northern Insurance further argues that, even if municipalities did enjoy common law immunity, general maritime law overrides any state-conferred immunity. Northern points out that the ruling of the Eleventh Circuit directly conflicts with the Georgia Supreme Court in Hines v. Georgia Port Authority, which held that general maritime law preempts state-conferred immunity. See id.?at 9, 26. The court reasoned that, if state-law provisions affording political subdivisions sovereign immunity were given effect in admiralty matters, then maritime law would become one thing in one port of the United States, and a different thing in some other port-a result inconsistent with the objective of uniformity that animates federal maritime law. See id. at 26. The court also acknowledged the haphazard and potentially disruptive legal regime that would exist if a vessel's ability to recover for injuries would be purely local, as the vessel traveled from port to port. See Brief for the United States As Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioner at 24.
If the Court reverses the Eleventh Circuit and determines that the common law does not extend sovereign immunity to municipalities, then Chatham County and other political subdivisions will be exposed to potentially expensive litigation. Even worse, Chatham may have to use state funds to satisfy judgments rendered against it. See Brief for Respondent at 22. Having to redirect state funds for litigation purposes would deplete resources and may cause government-run programs like education and public welfare to suffer. Furthermore, states will likely have to raise taxes to accommodate these changes.
To avoid these consequences, political subdivisions may cease operating and maintaining bridges all together to avoid the possibility of litigation. Deregulation may, in turn, lead to reduced quality in the maintenance and operation of bridges. A less extreme and more plausible option, however, would be for counties to simply redesignate county bridges as state infrastructure so that they could secure immunity. But if counties could simply sidestep the law in this manner, the courts' sovereign immunity jurisprudence would be undermined. See id. at 23.
On the other hand, the Court may affirm the Eleventh Circuit and find that sovereign immunity extends to Chatham County.? If so, Northern Insurance argues that this would profoundly alter the legal landscape by insulating all political subdivisions, including Chatham County, from federal causes of action. See Brief for Petitioner at 20-21. Political subdivisions, then, could "disavow" themselves from liability-preventing injured parties and insurance companies from recovering damages. See id. at 21. In turn, insurance companies may need to raise insurance premiums. Furthermore, political subdivisions will have less of an incentive to prevent such injuries in the first place. In particular, when a county, immune from damages, has a restricted budget, it may neglect repairing a bridge for the very reason the county will know it cannot be sued..
Extending sovereign immunity to municipalities may also disrupt important federal interests. See id. at 25. There are thousands of bridges across navigable waters, and the existing regulatory regime for their maintenance and operation is partly premised on the incentives for safe operation provided by admiralty tort principles. See id. If municipalities could not be sued for negligence or for any other tort, the federal government may have to impose extensive federal regulation-burdening the federal and local governments with additional expenses to meet new regulation. See id.
The outcome of the case will depend on whether the Court believes that sovereign immunity should extend to municipalities. The Court's decision may also depend on whether it agrees with the Eleventh Circuit's "arm of the state" test for determining which governmental entities are sufficiently aligned with the state to share in the state's immunity. If the Court grants sovereign immunity, the quality of county-operated bridges may decline, insurance companies may raise their premiums, and the federal government may have to step in to impose extensive new regulations. If the Court instead holds that counties should not be entitled to immunity, counties may have to dip into state funds to satisfy judgments rendered against it. This would lead to a depletion in resources, which may cause government-run programs like education and public welfare to suffer.
Written by: Thomas F. Lavery IV & Vi T. Vu