District of Columbia

quick facts

The common-law doctrine of sovereign immunity remains alive in the District of Columbia (D.C.), but it acts as a bar to bringing suit against a governmental entity only when the entity carries out discretionary functions. 1 D.C. courts define discretionary acts as those requiring “personal deliberation, decision and judgment.” 2

Government-employee immunity depends on the same, discretionary/ministerial distinction that applies when determining the sovereign’s immunity. This official immunity for discretionary functions is absolute, not qualified, and therefore applies even when the employee acts with malice or commits intentional torts. 3 The statute governing claims against the District provides that judgments against the District preclude claims against government employees for the same actions. 4

D.C.’s code also provides specific rules, procedures, and immunities for specific circumstances and government entities. For instance, the statute governing claims against the District creates an administrative petition process for unjust-imprisonment claims. 5 Moreover, actions for negligent operation of a motor vehicle must be brought against the District rather than the employee. 6 The government cannot assert immunity defenses in these cases, except in the case of a “claim arising out of the operation of an emergency vehicle on an emergency run,” in which case the government is liable only for “gross negligence.” 7 Another provision gives government entities and employees immunity from claims “arising from any good faith act or omission” in the registration of sex offenders. 8 Lastly, the statutory provision governing the D.C. metro system gives the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority sovereign immunity in the performance of government functions but allows liability for proprietary functions. 9