Our state and local governments provide many valuable services to West Virginia citizens. Sometimes in the provision of those services, errors and accidents occur. While West Virginia laws may allow government departments and government officials to be sued in particularly egregious circumstances, they must also balance the ability of citizens to sue against the practicalities of providing affordable services to all. If every citizen could sue the government for millions of dollars any time an accident occurred, a local government might quickly find itself bankrupt and unable to provide any services to the community. In order to protect against this, West Virginia’s laws provide governments with governmental immunity in certain circumstances. A recent case before the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia looks at whether a West Virginia resident has a right to sue a fire department for errors in attempting to put out a fire at her house.
In Albert v. City of Wheeling, Ms. Albert called the Wheeling Fire Department to report a fire in the dining room of her home. The fire quickly spread to the basement, and while the firemen were battling it, they experienced a problem with their water hoses that prevented them from using them. As a result of the disabled hoses, Ms. Albert’s home was ultimately burned to the ground. Almost two years later, Ms. Albert filed a lawsuit against the City of Wheeling, alleging that they were negligent in the maintenance of their fire hydrant system and that, as a result, they had not been able to properly respond to her fire. The trial court granted the City’s motion to dismiss on the ground that they had governmental immunity for all fire protection services. Ms. Albert appealed.
Under West Virginia’s Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act (“Tort Claims Act”), West Virginia citizens may sue local governments in West Virginia for injuries or loss “to persons or property caused by the negligent performance of acts by their employees while acting within the scope of employment.” They may also sue for injuries or loss due to “negligent failure to keep . . . aqueducts . . . open in repair, or free from nuisance . . . .” Ms. Albert asserted that under these two provisions, she was entitled to sue the City of Wheeling for their negligent performance in responding to her fire and their failure to keep their hoses in proper order.
However, the Supreme Court held that these statutory provisions must be read in conjunction with later provisions of the Tort Claims Act that provide that, in all cases, local governments (also known as political subdivisions) are immune from liability for “the failure to provide, or the method of providing, police, law enforcement or fire protection.” Thus, the Supreme Court determined that there is no liability for negligent acts performed by employees when done in the context of police work, law enforcement, or fire protection. Likewise, the City cannot be held liable for a negligent failure to keep up aqueducts when the failure is related to fire protection. Here, all of Ms. Albert’s claims directly resulted from the fire she experienced and the City’s failure to stop that fire. Accordingly, the City of Wheeling was held immune from liability under the Tort Claims Act because it was providing fire protection services at the time.
Suing a local government body for negligence or personal injury can be very complicated. Most states have specific laws addressing tort claims against governments and may require that you provide the government with adequate notice in advance of your claim, or they may grant immunity to governmental bodies in many situations. If you are considering a claim against a governmental entity like a school board, fire department, or police department, it is important that you consult with a personal injury attorney familiar with your state’s laws. At Wolfe Law Firm, our West Virginia personal injury attorneys understand West Virginia’s immunity laws and have been assisting clients with negligence claims for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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