Are there exceptions to the state tort claims act?
Rhode Island courts have carved out immunities for most discretionary government functions and have interpreted the scope of employment so narrowly that government employees are effectively immunized from personal-capacity lawsuits for negligence torts.
A Broad Statutory Waiver of Immunity Walked Back by the Courts
The Rhode Island Governmental Tort Liability Act (“RIGTA”) allows plaintiffs to sue government entities “in all actions of tort in the same manner as a private individual or corporation.” 1 Despite this seemingly absolute waiver of immunity, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has recognized “a zone of governmental operation which should be insulated from tort claims, even in the absence of sovereign immunity.” 2 In a series of decisions, the Court set out the State’s public-duty doctrine, which protects the government from liability unless “(1) . . . the governmental entity owes a ‘special duty’ to the plaintiff, (2) . . . the alleged act or omission on the part of the governmental entity was egregious, or (3) . . . the governmental entity engaged in activities normally undertaken by private individuals or corporations.” 3 The Court has also held that to hold a governmental entity liable for the intentional torts of an employee using a theory of respondeat superior, the intentional tort must be committed “within the scope of employment.” 4 And Rhode Island courts have further limited government liability by interpreting “within the scope of employment” narrowly so that acts of police brutality generally fall outside of the RIGTA. 5
Personal Liability of Government Officials
Unless the claim arises out of “actual fraud, willful misconduct, or actual malice,” claims against government employees arising within the scope of employment will be “deemed to be an action or proceeding brought against the state.” 6 This provision effectively immunizes government employees from personal-capacity lawsuits for negligence torts and intentional torts that do not meet the actual fraud/willful-misconduct/actual-malice threshold. 7 Fortunately, claims that arose from conduct outside of the “scope of employment” (such as police brutality claims) and claims arising out of “actual fraud, willful misconduct, or actual malice” can be brought against government officials in their individual capacities. In cases in which an official is sued in his or her personal capacity, the State “reserves the right to determine whether or not it will indemnify” the employee. 8