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Muskopf v. Corning Hospital District

Sovereign Immunity

The concept that the government is immune from tort liability is sometimes said to stem from the ancient English maxim "The king can do no wrong." One reading of this maxim interprets it as the basis for the common law concept of "sovereign immunity," which precludes a suit against the sovereign without the sovereign's consent. The purpose of sovereign immunity, however, was not to deny the injured restitution, but rather to indicate that the king's courts could not have jurisdiction over the king.

Justice Traynor, noting the concept of sovereign immunity, in his majority opinion went on to provide a history of the court's erosion of the rule of governmental immunity. He acknowledged that the rule is "riddled with exceptions." First, municipal corporations were "held subject to the court's equitable distribution," then they were "held liable for their proprietary acts." Proprietary acts are those the state undertakes for the benefit of its citizens--such as building a park--rather than those fundamental to it as a government--such as passing laws. According to the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, which was meant to give citizens harmed by the government a means of obtaining relief, there is no governmental immunity for proprietary acts. Although some forms of immunity have been consistently upheld by the courts, such as immunity from citizens suing the government for injuries incurred while serving in the military during an act of war, Traynor wrote that "for years the process of erosion of governmental immunity has gone on unabated." Traynor noted that this erosion was not necessarily negative, though. Although suits against municipalities, states, or the federal government imposed a burden on the public, the court held that "[p]ublic convenience does not outweigh individual compensation."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Muskopf v. Corning Hospital District - Torts And Liability, Sovereign Immunity, The Narrowing Of Immunity, Tort Liability