Suing the King - Sovereign Immunity and its Exceptions

In old England, while the system of law we still use today was being developed, kings realized that the courts they were setting up might leave them vulnerable to being sued by their own subjects. In response, the principle of sovereign immunity was developed and enshrined as law: you cannot sue the king. 

Although we rejected the rule of kings hundreds of years ago, Pennsylvania legislators had similarly protective feelings towards their government, and in 1978 codified the principle in the Sovereign Immunity Act (“SIA”). However, the SIA has nine exceptions to the principle that a the Commonwealth cannot be sued for damages.  

The nine factual circumstances in which Pennsylvania and its employees may be sued for the injuries they cause are established in the Sovereign Immunity Act as follows: 

  1. Vehicle liability – for vehicles controlled by Pennsylvania agents or employees; 

  2. Medical-professional liability – for acts of commonwealth agency medical facilities or personnel; 

  3. Nuclear and other radioactive equipment - for care or control of property control by Pennsylvania parties; 

  4. Real Estate - for dangerous conditions of highways and sidewalks; 

  5. Potholes and Sinkholes - for dangerous conditions created by these on Pennsylvania highways; 

  6. Animals - for control of animals owned by the Commonwealth; 

  7. Liquor Sales - for sales to minors or intoxicated persons; 

  8. National Guard – for acts by Pennsylvania military forces; and

  9. Toxoids and vaccines – for damages caused by vaccines or toxic materials.

Unfortunately, many times inmates are injured by the delay or denial of medical care of prison doctors and medical staff. It is important to understand that, while Pennsylvania cannot be sued for most of the injuries its employees cause, the “medical-professional” exception to the means that a prisoner can sue the Commonwealth for the medical malpractice of prison doctors or nurses. 

Not only does the Sovereign Immunity Act limit the types of situations in which a person can sue the Commonwealth, it also limits the amount of money any one person can recover, no matter how severe their injuries and damages. Finally, the Sovereign Immunity Act restricts the types of damages a person can recover from the Commonwealth to the following: a) loss of earnings; b) pain and suffering; c) medical expenses; d) loss of consortium; and e) property loss. 

The Sovereign Immunity Act makes it very difficult to recover money from Pennsylvania, even when your injuries by the Commonwealth or its employees. Unless the injury falls into one of the nine enumerated exceptions described above, you can not sue the Commonwealth. However, a person who is injured by the Commonwealth or its employees should not automatically give up any hope of recovery. 

For example, you may be able to sue the Commonwealth employees for a violation of your constitutional rights, or for a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. These types of claims are not barred by the SIA, and they can provide a means of recovery for certain types of injures. Both of these topics are discussed in more detail in articles on this website entitled “Eighth Amendment” and “Americans With Disabilities Act.” 

When you are injured by a state employee, it is critical to be represented by an attorney who is familiar with the Sovereign Immunity Act and its effect. If you know anyone who has may have a claim against an employee of the Commonwealth who could benefit from compassionate yet zealous representation, then contact the Mizner Law Firm at (814) 454-3889 or by email at