Are there exceptions to the state tort claims act?
Under the Alabama Constitution, the state and its agencies have absolute immunity from suit in any court. The Supreme Court of Alabama has concluded that sheriffs, as executive officers of the state, also enjoy absolute sovereign immunity from suit. This absolute immunity has also been extended to deputy sheriffs. Municipalities are generally not liable for intentional torts. Public employees enjoy a common law immunity when they commit negligence torts during the course of carrying out a discretionary function.
Absolute Immunity for the State and the Sheriff
Under the Alabama Constitution, the state and its agencies have absolute immunity from suit in any court; neither the State nor the agency has the power to waive that immunity. 1 The Supreme Court of Alabama has concluded that sheriffs, as executive officers of the state, also enjoy absolute sovereign immunity from suit. 2 This absolute immunity has also been extended to deputy sheriffs, whom the Court has determined are extensions of the sheriff, and, therefore, entitled to constitutional sovereign immunity. 3
Think Intentional Torts, Not Constitutional Rights
Alabama limits the respondeat superior liability of municipalities to claims arising out of “the neglect, carelessness or unskillfulness” of their officers or employees. 4 Even though Ala. Code § 11-47-190 appears on its face to only permit the assertion of negligence-based claims against a municipality, the Supreme Court of Alabama has held that “negligent” assault and battery and “negligent” false imprisonment claims may be asserted against a municipality arising out of an arrest. The Court has also held that where excessive force is used upon a plaintiff during the course of an arrest, such force can constitute an “unskillful” use by a law enforcement officer of more force than is called for under the circumstances. 5 Counties do not enjoy sovereign immunity. 6 However, county sheriffs are considered officers of the state and enjoy the state’s absolute sovereign immunity. Damages recoverable against municipalities and counties are strictly capped. 7
Public employees enjoy common law immunity when they are engaged in discretionary functions. 8 This discretionary immunity does not provide immunity from liability in the commission of an intentional tort, but only for negligence in the exercise of judgment 9 . When public employees enjoy immunity, the governmental entity that employs them will normally enjoy vicarious immunity. 10
Public employees can also be liable for damages for illegal searches that violate the State’s Fourth Amendment. While Alabama has never addressed whether plaintiffs have implied causes of action for damages under the state Constitution, Alabama case law reflects the ancient common law rule that government officials who enter a person’s home without a warrant are liable for damages. 11 However, the vitality of this case law in Alabama is unclear.