IMMUNITIES – LAW 101

Hello, I’m attorney Kyle Bachus. The legal world is full of overly complicated jargon and terminology that can be intimidating if you don’t know what it means. In my law 101 video series, I’m breaking down some commonly used legal terms so you can be informed and confident should you ever need to take legal action.

In this episode of law 101, we’re going to break down the legal term immunities.

What are immunities? In other videos, we’ve talked about negligence, right? Let’s say that you meet all of the qualifications to present a negligence claim. Well, we always have to ask a final question before we can bring a negligence claim. Is there something about the law that prevents us from bringing a claim against that entity or person? And that’s what an immunity is. So what are examples? Governments. When governments write statutes, they write immunities into those statutes.

You have state government, and then you have the federal government. Let’s talk specifically about state government. State governments in most states they write immunities in one of two ways. The first is they write a law that says we are immune from any lawsuits at all, except for those that are specifically enumerated in our immunity statute. The second way a government can do it is they can write a law the opposite that says, we can be sued for everything except those categories of lawsuits that we have identified in our statute.

In Colorado, our state government has said state local governments are immune from liability in all circumstances, except for those specifically enumerated in a statute. So you have to look at the statute and see whether you fall under an exception to governmental immunity. The federal government similarly has immunities. These are very expansive and very detailed. But it’s important for you to understand that immunities exist and that the next step is to try to identify what immunities might exist in a particular legal setting and to see whether there are notification requirements.

Let’s say it’s a school teacher working as an employee for the school, going to get supplies, runs a red light, and causes harm. We got to try to identify very quickly whether or not the person who caused the collision might be subject to some immunities because the consequences are real. The timeframes may result in no claim at all; the immunities might result in no claim at all. So when we look at immunities, it’s extremely important to see, is there an immunity that applies? And then to look at the governmental immunity statute, to see whether you fall under an exception and to see how you need to give notice and under what circumstances, and to whom notice must go out.

If you have a question about a particular matter and whether there are immunities, whether there’s state government or federal government immunity, we’re happy to answer those questions for you at Bachus and Schanker. To learn more about other law topics that can help you feel informed and confident about the law, make sure to check out more videos in this series.

CHECK OUT MORE VIDEOS IN OUR LAW 101 SERIES

Immunities FAQs

What are immunities?

Immunities are the legal concept that someone does not have to pay damages for causing harm even though they may otherwise be legally at fault for their actions. A party with immunity from criminal or civil liability can generally act in a certain way without suffering legal consequences or liability for their behavior.

What are examples of immunities?

There are generally four main areas where prosecutors may grant full immunity. These include:

Criminal – Example: A criminal such as a small-time drug dealer may be granted immunity in exchange for information about a wanted drug lord.

Governmental – Example: A person cannot sue the government for passing a law that affects them.

Public officials – Example: An officer who injures a passerby when attempting to use his gun to scare off a dog.

Diplomatic – Example: If a diplomat’s son commits a crime, he would not be sent to jail or expected to endure the typical consequences associated with his actions. 

What does immunity mean for a witness?

Witnesses who testify in court are protected by use and derivative use immunity, so their statements and witness accounts cannot be used against them. For witnesses, this is essentially the same as a witness not testifying in that any information must be treated for the prosecution of the offender and cannot be used to incriminate the witness for their actions.

Who has legal immunity?

There are many different types of legal immunity laws depending on the circumstances. Immunity may include the government, public employees and officials, diplomats, witnesses, and even criminals. 

Can you ask for immunity?

A person may accept an offer of immunity from prosecutors for revealing possibly incriminating details to help solve a case. If a person does not wish to state the facts in court, a person can utilize the fifth amendment privilege and choose not to discuss information that may result in criminal prosecution.

Can you refuse immunity?

A witness can be held in contempt of court for not accepting an immunity deal and may even have to pay fines or serve jail time. Refusing immunity leaves a person open to prosecution. Immunity can be refused involuntarily if information is shared before official immunity has been granted. 

Can immunity be revoked?

Generally, immunity cannot be revoked once it has been offered. One scenario where a prosecutor may revoke immunity is if the receiver of the immunity deal does not follow through with the agreement.

What is sovereign immunity?

Sovereign immunity is the idea that a government cannot be sued without consent. It comes from the idea that the government is the king, and their actions are privileged even when they cause harm.

In the United States, sovereign immunity is generally called government immunity. The relevant laws are often called an Immunity Act or a Tort Claims Act (example: Federal Tort Claims Act). The United States federal and state governments generally have some immunity, but immunity is often waived, too.

When does immunity apply in Colorado law?

In Colorado law, immunity primarily applies to the actions of government workers. There is a law called the Colorado Government Immunity Act that says the state is generally immune from tort liability for the actions of its employees unless immunity has expressly been waived by law. There are many waivers where tort victims may receive compensation even if a government employee is responsible for their injury.

How does immunity work?

When immunity applies, the defendant does not have to pay compensation for damages. Even when the plaintiff can prove all the elements of legal liability, the defendant may simply assert their immunity and expect to have their case dismissed.

What is the law in Colorado for immunity in injury cases?

The law in Colorado for immunity in injury cases is the Colorado Government Immunity Act. This provides governmental immunity for employees and agencies involved in personal injury claims. There may be some exceptions to governmental immunity that allows victims to claim personal injury damages against a state or government worker.

Does the State of Colorado have sovereign immunity for car accidents?

No. In Colorado Revised Statutes § 24-10-106, the State of Colorado waives its immunity for legal liability arising from the operation of a motor vehicle, including car accidents. The only exception where immunity applies for car accidents is emergency vehicles operating lawfully in executing their duties.

What are some situations where government immunity may be waived?

Some situations where immunity may be waived are:

  • Professional drivers who work for the State of Colorado or subdivisions
  • State employees who drive incidentally to perform their job duties
  • Government-run hospitals
  • Corrections officers
  • School bus drivers
  • Dangerous road conditions or poor road design that creates a dangerous condition
  • Public utility operations
  • Slip and falls that occur on government property
  • Dangers from recreational facilities, including swimming pools

These are all examples where the government may be responsible for an injury. Whether there is governmental immunity depends on whether the Colorado Government Immunity Act waives immunity for the circumstances in which the injury occurred.

What government entities are protected under the Colorado Government Immunity Act?

Immunities protected by the Colorado Government Immunity Act apply not only to state employees but to all “public entities,” including:

  • State
  • Judicial branches
  • County, city, and municipal governments
  • School districts
  • Agencies and districts
  • Other political subdivisions and instrumentalities

What does a victim need to know about injury immunity in Colorado?

If you’re an injury victim in Colorado, you should know:

  • Immunities exist in law. Even if you can prove all the elements of fault, if immunity applies, you may be prevented from receiving compensation.
  • In general, immunities apply to government agencies.
  • The government has chosen to waive immunity in many situations involving negligence. If you’re an injury victim, you may still be able to recover compensation.
  • When immunity is waived, a claim against a government entity must begin with the victim giving the government notice of the claim. The notice must be provided in the appropriate manner within 182 days of the injury or discovery of the injury.

As a personal injury victim, it’s important to quickly evaluate who the defendants may be in the case. Where a government entity is involved, notice must be provided promptly, even when immunity is waived. It’s essential to work with a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible to evaluate your claim and take the necessary steps to protect your rights.

What is the difference between absolute and qualified immunity?

Absolute immunity means a person has no legal liability for their actions, no matter what. Examples may be high-ranking government officials and legislators. Qualified immunity applies only when certain conditions are present, like when someone acts within the course of their duties and in good faith.

What is immunity in a criminal context?

In criminal law, you may hear about immunity for a witness. When a witness has immunity, the state cannot use their testimony against them in a subsequent prosecution.

Attorneys for Immunity in a Personal Injury Claim

Immunity in the law can mean different things in different contexts. To get justice in a personal injury claim, you need to know if immunity applies to your case. If it applies, you’ll need to know the essential legal information to adequately respond and protect your rights. Our personal injury lawyers want you to get all the compensation you deserve. Contact us today for a review of your case.

Sources:

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-10-103

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-10-109

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-10-106

Legal Dictionary (29 March 2019) Immunity.

Nolo. What Immunity Means for a Witness. 

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Programs and Projects of the Office of General Counsel (OGC)