Governmental Immunity is sometimes known as sovereign immunity, which in the United States, the federal, state, and tribal governments enjoy when it comes to lawsuits. For instance, local municipality and city governments generally enjoy some sort of immunity in tort lawsuits. Although sovereign immunity and governmental immunity are often used interchangeably, there is a slight difference between the two terms. Sovereign immunity protects sovereign states and their state officers and agencies. On the other hand, governmental immunity provides immunity for subdivisions within the state, such as city municipalities. Additionally, the governments of foreign countries also enjoy a similar form of immunity known as state immunity from the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act which protects foreign countries from lawsuits, except in instances concerning commercial activities in the United States. Nonetheless, there are some situations when governmental immunity can be waived.
Governmental immunity can be further classified into two major categories, which are absolute immunity and qualified immunity. Absolute immunity means that a government agent or actor cannot be sued for the illegal act, even if said agent or actor performed the action in bad faith or even maliciously. Absolute immunity is usually involved in circumstances that if challenged, it would drastically affect the government’s procedures and operations. Qualified immunity protects a government actor or agent from liability only when certain conditions are in place, which are usually specified in case law or statutes.
The idea of governmental immunity, and sovereign immunity, is derived from the English Common Law concept of rex non potest peccare which simply means that “the king can do no wrong.” The point of that concept was to protect the sovereign king.
[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]