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How Virginia Somehow Makes It Even Worse to Get Hit by a Garbage Truck

A legal concept called "sovereign immunity" means you pay when a government employee screws up.
Photograph by Klavdiya Volkova/via iStock.
Garbage Week

This week, Washingtonian is reporting on one of the least-noticed but most important aspects of urban life: garbage. Read about why we’re doing this.

This past spring, a city of Alexandria garbage truck struck Elena Mazzeo‘s SUV, lifting it up and dropping it on the street. As NBCWashington reported in May, Mazzeo called the police, who took a report, and a supervisor from Alexandria’s Transportation & Environmental Services department apologized. But then she received a letter explaining that Alexandria would contribute exactly $0 to the cost of $4,600 cost of repairing her car: The city isn’t liable for damages caused while providing core services like garbage collection, City Attorney James Banks explained.

This favorable state of affairs for garbage-truck operators derives from a legal concept called “sovereign immunity.” It’s one that many Virginia municipalities embrace with enthusiasm. Consider:

• The city of Roanoke refused to pay the $1,000 cost of repairing Ian Williams’s Subaru Forester after a garbage truck backed into it in 2016.

• Mark Mitchell had to appeal to Newport News’s city manager before he got the municipality to pay for the damage a garbage truck did to his SUV.

Gladys Decker’s van was struck by a garbage truck leaving Hampton Coliseum, but Virginia’s Supreme Court later decided she had no right to sue because the truck was leaving a “recreational facility.”

Sanitation-related mayhem isn’t the only trigger for sovereign immunity. “We’ve had kiddoes injured on school buses,” says Ben Glass, a Fairfax City-based attorney who handles injury claims. “We’ve had people who get run over in crosswalks. … The cases that we have seen here would outrage people if they knew about it.”

Sovereign immunity derives from English common law and offers the state absolute immunity during the provision of governmental functions. It can be held liable when providing “proprietary functions” like operating a water department or toll booths, and in cases of gross negligence, though that can be difficult to prove.

The concept is sometimes referred to in Latin as “rex non potest peccare”: The king can do no wrong. And, as Glass says, “There probably isn’t a state that has greater protection for the king than Virginia.” But Virginia’s state motto is another Latin phrase: Sic semper tyrannis, and its flag shows a presumably misbehaving monarch after getting his butt kicked. So how exactly is sovereign immunity able to stick around in the Old Dominion when many other states have eased off it?

For one thing, it saves localities a good deal of money. For another, sovereign immunity provides protections for government officials that might otherwise make public service legally perilous.

But another aspect of sovereign immunity’s persistence is that these incidents tend to happen to one person at a time and may not generate any publicity.  “If there’s no groundswell of support that’s vocal for abrogating the immunity, nobody cares except that particular family,” Glass says.

Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who is running unopposed to be the city’s next mayor, says “I understand the concerns” regarding a case like Mazzeo’s. “It’s one of these situations where the [city] staff is doing their job, which is protecting the fiduciary interests of the city, and at times that can seem unfair in individual applications.” After Mazzeo’s case made the news, Wilson says, he and other members of Alexandria’s city council heard from a good number of constituents and asked staff to study the issue and present it with some options, including looking at what neighboring jurisdictions do–Arlington, NBCWashington reported, considers such claims on a case-by-case basis.

Reached via email, Mazzeo says that she never did get any payment from the city of Alexandria for the damage its vehicle did to her car. But, she notes, like all other city residents, her car tax bill recently arrived.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.