FAQs - Governmental Immunity

Are governmental entities in Colorado immune from suit?

This is all very complex, isnt it?">This is all very complex, isn't it?

Well, don't most of the cases against government involve auto accidents? After all, the government has lots of vehicles and they must get into accidents every now and then.

So if a governmental employee runs a red light in a government vehicle and I am injured I can file a claim?

What's an "emergency vehicle?"

So if a police officer runs a red light and hits me and I get hurt I can't sue?

So when they are operating under "emergency" conditions they are not subject to the rules of the road?

So, police responding to an emergency can exceed the speed limit only if it is safe to do so? Isn't speeding always unsafe?

Well, if I was having a heart attack, I'd want that ambulance to get to me as quickly as possible.


1. Are governmental entities in Colorado immune from suit?

Governmental entities and employees are immune from suit for injury claims unless your claim falls within one of six exceptions. The six exceptions are: (1) claims brought against a governmental entity for the negligent operation of an automobile, (2) claims arising out of the operation of any public hospital, correctional facility or jail, (3) claims arising out of a dangerous condition of any public building, (4) injuries caused by a dangerous condition of a public highway, road or street which physically interferes with the movement of traffic on the paved portion of the roadway, (5) injuries caused by a dangerous condition of any public hospital, jail, public facility located in a park or recreation area, or any public water, gas, sanitation, electrical, power or swimming facility, and (6) claims arising out of the operation and maintenance of any public water facility, gas facility, sanitation facility, electrical facility, power facility or swimming facility.

2. This is all very complex, isn't it?

You have no idea. The six exceptions are themselves riddled with exceptions. For instance, the exception for injuries caused by a "dangerous condition of any public building" seems relatively straightforward. It isn't. A "dangerous condition" is defined as:

"a physical condition of a facility or the use thereof which constitutes an unreasonable risk to the health or safety of the public, which is known to exist or which in the exercise of reasonable care should have been known to exist and which condition is proximately caused by the negligent act or omission of the public entity in constructing or maintaining such facility. Maintenance does not include any duty to upgrade, modernize, modify, or improve the design or construction of a facility. For the purposes of this subsection (1), a dangerous condition should have been known to exist if it is established that the condition had existed for such a period of time and was of such a nature that, in the exercise of reasonable care, such condition and its dangerous character should have been discovered. A dangerous condition shall not exist solely because the design of any facility is inadequate. The mere existence of wind, water, snow, ice, or temperature shall not, by itself, constitute a dangerous condition."

Every word in this diabolical definition of "dangerous condition" is a potential defense for the governmental entity that seeks to avoid responsibility for negligently causing the death or serious injury of one of its own citizens. Keep in mind that the lawyers who defend governmental entities in lawsuits for injury and death are often the same lawyers who draft these laws for the legislature!

3. Well, don't most of the cases against government involve auto accidents? After all, the government has lots of vehicles and they must get into accidents every now and then.

It is true that many claims against governmental entities involve auto accidents. In general, the automobile exception to immunity is pretty straightforward. The vehicle must be owned or leased by the governmental entity and must be operated by a public employee in the course of employment.

4. So if a governmental employee runs a red light in a government vehicle and I am injured I can file a claim?

Yes. Unless the vehicle is an "emergency vehicle" operating within the provisions of the "emergency vehicle statute."

5. What's an "emergency vehicle?"

Police cars, fire trucks and ambulances are the main categories of emergency vehicles.

6. So if a police officer runs a red light and hits me and I get hurt I can't sue?

If the police car is operating without lights and sirens, it is not considered an "emergency vehicle," and, therefore, you can file a lawsuit. When they are not operating under emergency conditions, police, firefighters and ambulance drivers are subject to the exact same rules of the road as everyone else.

7. So when they are operating under "emergency" conditions they are not subject to the rules of the road?

Not exactly. First, when operating in an emergency, police officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers are required to use their lights and sirens. Otherwise, they are required to follow the rules of the road. If they are operating under emergency conditions, and they have activated their overhead lights and their siren, they are granted a privilege to exceed the speed limit, if, but only if, they can do so safely, and they are granted a privilege to go through stop signs and red lights, if, but only if, they slow down first to make sure that it is safe to proceed. They are also permitted to go the wrong way down one-way streets, and they can ignore parking requirements.

8. So, police responding to an emergency can exceed the speed limit only if it is safe to do so? Isn't speeding always unsafe?

Speeding is usually unsafe. However, police officers and other emergency vehicle operators do receive special training in advanced driving techniques that theoretically make them capable of exceeding the speed limit safely. However, the Colorado Supreme Court has interpreted the emergency vehicle statute to require emergency vehicle operators to take the surrounding circumstances into consideration. For instance, on I-25 between Colorado Springs and Denver the speed limit is generally 75 mph. When responding to an emergency at 2 a.m., when there is very little traffic, a speed limit of 90 may be reasonable. At 5 p.m., however, when there is a lot of traffic, that same speed might be considered objectively unreasonable. Similarly, exceeding the speed limit, even in an emergency situation, might be per se unreasonable if, for instance, the vehicle was being operated in a school zone right when kids were arriving for class. Emergency vehicle operators are not permitted to put the public in danger simply because they are responding to an emergency.

9. Well, if I was having a heart attack, I'd want that ambulance to get to me as quickly as possible.

It makes no sense to cause an accident on the way to your heart attack. First, if the ambulance gets into an accident, you're not going to get transported to the hospital until a second ambulance can be dispatched. Second, ambulances might have to be dispatched to the auto accident caused by the first ambulance. Third, police officers and other public safety officials will need to be diverted from their other duties to handle the accident scene. Fourth, public employees may injure themselves in accidents, thereby increasing costs to their governmental employer in terms of workers compensation insurance, medical expenses, lost time from work, property damage, etc. Fifth, innocent persons might be killed or injured. Your heart attack is important, but it is not so important that other people should be endangered unnecessarily.