Navigating West Virginia’s Tort Claims Act and municipal immunity laws

Municipalities in West Virginia face a unique set of challenges when it comes to defending potential lawsuits. After all, the costs related to litigation and possible liability can hurt the financial well-being of even the largest city, thus making municipal liability insurance a necessity. However, due to the inherent risks shouldered by West Virginia cities - and the resulting inability to procure affordable liability insurance due to these risks - state lawmakers created the Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act.

In the most basic terms, the purpose of this particular Act is to limit the legal liability of political subdivisions, such as municipalities, and provide immunity from suit in certain situations, which in turn helps regulate the costs of insurance coverage.

When is a city in West Virginia liable for damages?

Specifically, the Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act states that a municipality is "not liable in damages in a civil action for injury, death, or loss to persons or property allegedly caused by any act or omission" of the municipality or a city employee. However, there are some very important exceptions to this liability shield, including circumstances in which:

  • An injury, loss or death occurs due to the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by a city employee who is engaged in the scope of his or her employment
  • An injury, loss or death occurs due to the negligent performance of acts by a city employee while acting in the scope of his or her employment
  • An injury, loss or death occurs due to the negligent failure to keep public roads, highways, streets, sidewalks or other public grounds within the municipality open and in good repair
  • An injury, loss or death occurs due to the negligence of city employees that takes place within, or on the grounds of, a municipal building
  • An injury, loss or death occurs in a situation in which the West Virginia code has expressly imposed liability upon the municipality

Alternatively, the Act does contain several specific provisions outlining when a municipality enjoys immunity from liability. For example, a municipality is expressly immune from liability when the alleged loss stems from its execution or enforcement of a lawful court order. However, this is only one of the many municipal immunities delineated in West Virginia law.

Legal guidance may be necessary

It is important to note that the information contained herein is merely a simplified overview of West Virginia's Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, and accordingly should not be relied upon as legal advice. Given the complexities of these laws, it is often best to consult with an experienced municipal liability defense attorney if you have questions or concerns. A knowledgeable attorney can help navigate these complicated laws and assist in explaining whether potential immunity from liability may exist.