Several different areas of immunity apply to the various governmental and private parties that practice police, correctional, and medical functions for traditional governmental units. Sorting out which forms of immunity may or may not apply to multiple lawsuits against municipalities, officers, medical personnel and any private contractors can be complex and require considerable legal analysis.
Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights which a reasonable person would know about. In finding qualified immunity, the court, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, determines whether a violation of a constitutional right has occurred and if a constitutional right at issue was clearly established at the time of defendant’s alleged misconduct. The court may also consider whether what the official allegedly did was objectively unreasonable.
Michigan law offers full governmental immunity under certain circumstances. An employee of a governmental agency is immune from tort liability for an injury to a person or damage to property caused by the employee while acting on behalf of a governmental agency under Michigan law if the employee reasonably believes he or she is acting within the scope of his or her authority the governmental agency is engaged in the exercise of a governmental function, and the conduct is not grossly negligent. However, an exception exists that eliminates governmental immunity when providing medical care or treatment to the inmate of a county jail.
As for Florida, state law allows punitive damages if the defendant was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Further, an employer can be liable for punitive damages for the conduct of an employee if the employer actively and knowingly participated in such conduct, management knowingly condoned, ratified, or consented to such conduct, or the management engaged in conduct which constituted gross negligence and contributed to the loss, damages or injury suffered by the plaintiff.
However, private corporations providing traditional government functions, such as providing medical care in prison settings, and their employees are considered state actors. This means that they are acting in the place of the government and may be similarly liable for their actions as if they were governmental employees. Courts have held that private prison guards who contracted with a state to manage a correctional facility were not entitled to the protections afforded by the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. Courts have found that the history and purposes of qualified immunity does not reveal anything sufficiently special about the work of private prison medical providers which would warrant providing such providers with governmental immunity. Therefore, for example, a physician’s assistant who was privately employed by a company that provided medical care to inmates is not entitled to assert a defense of qualified immunity.
Defenses of qualified immunity can and should be asserted early in litigation and will often mean that the defendants can avoid costly discovery. An experienced attorney, such as those at Chapman Law Group, know that raising this issue will save time and expenses for the client. Such sophisticated strategy is born of the firm’s 25 years’ experience in civil rights litigation. Further, recognizing that a qualified immunity defense does not apply to private contractors saves those private entities time and expense avoiding pursuing a frivolous defense. Qualified immunity properly pursued will result in quick dismissal of many civil rights claims and Chapman Law Group would confidently provide such defenses, or offer alternatives based on their years of experience when such a defense will not apply.