Most public health personnel are employees of government, or contractors with
government agencies. Historically, the federal and state governments had
sovereign immunity, which was the common law concept that no one could sue
the king (government). If the state injured a person, the only way for the
individual to get compensation under sovereign immunity was to persuade the
legislature to pass a special law authorizing such compensation.
After the Civil War, Congress passed federal laws, including the Civil Rights
Acts, which allowed individuals to sue state officials who used state authority
to violate the individual's civil rights. Starting in the 1940s, the states and the
federal government, responding to the huge legislative burden of private
compensation bills and the potential for corruption in private compensation
legislation, passed Tort Claims Acts. These provided a legal remedy for
negligence claims against the government and its employees.
Public health agency employees are subject to the same legal liability as other
governmental employees, and their employers are subject to the same liability
as other government agencies. Public health departments are often the targets
of litigation and in some cases individual employees are also sued.
As discussed in the subsequent sections, federal public health agencies and
employees may be sued under federal law, and state agencies and employees
can be sued under state and federal law. Both the state and federal
governments have sovereign immunity and can only be sued under specific
statutes giving permission to sue in defined circumstances. Individual
employees can be sued for their own actions, but they have legal protections
to the extent that these actions are within their job duties.
These laws attempt to balance the rights of injured individuals against the need
to deliver cost-effective public services and the need to protect public officials
and employees from individual liability for doing their job. Public health officials
have to make many unpopular decisions to protect the public health, and they
cannot make these decisions if they are worried about liability for themselves
or for their jurisdictions.
At both the federal and state level, there are three types of claims which are
handled separately. First are claims for money, such as contract claims. Second
are claims for intentional harmful actions, such as unlawful detention, which
violate an individual's civil rights. Third are claims for negligent injuries, such as
medical malpractice. These are handled through an administrative
compensation system. This is called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for the
federal government, and each state has its own Tort Claims Act (TCA)
patterned after the federal act. Each of these types of claims will be discussed
for the federal government, then for state and local governments.