Most states, along with the federal government, have something called “sovereign immunity.” The idea is that, because governmental authorities create laws and courts in the first place, they cannot be sued in those same courts.
‘They’ in this case refers to the governmental agency itself, not employees working on behalf of that agency. In 1946, the “Federal Tort Claims Act” extended private citizens the right to sue the United States government for some negligent actions of its employees. Most States now recognize this right, too.
Injuries sustained in slip, trip and fall accidents on Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) property, on the other hand, will not involve individual employees. Instead, you’ll be suing the MTA itself.
But can you?
Does New York City’s MTA Have Sovereign Immunity?
Because it essentially means that governments can do no legal wrong, the doctrine of sovereign immunity might seem crazy to you. Be that as it may, it’s simply the way things work in many jurisdictions.
New York State is different. According to the official opinion of the New York State Unified Court System:
“Sovereign immunity is an outmoded doctrine, an un-American holdover of the ‘divine right of kings’ concept. It has no logical application in the United States.”
In a series of Acts passed throughout the 20th century, New York State officially waived its sovereign immunity, allowing injured residents to file lawsuits against all manner of governmental agencies. This includes the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
Short answer: yes, you may be able to sue the MTA for your injuries. But it won’t be easy.
Time Waits For No Governmental Agency
Here are the hallmarks of a viable case against the MTA:
1. Prior Notice
With a total of 842 miles of subway track alone, New York’s MTA has a lot to do, primarily maintenance and routine up-keep. And while the agency employs roughly 65,000 people, its resources are nonetheless limited.
If you were injured by dangerous conditions on MTA property, you’ll have to prove that the agency received prior written notice of the hazard. In effect, we do not have the right to expect the MTA to make everything perfect for us, all the time.
Governmental agencies must receive this notice at least 15 days prior to an accident in order to be held liable.
An exception to this requirement is if the MTA itself created an unreasonably dangerous situation, through construction or failed repair work.
2. Appropriate Time
After receiving notice of a hazard, the MTA is allowed a “reasonable” amount of time to address it.
To illustrate “reasonable,” here are two examples:
The Bad Example
Overnight, the City is buried under a foot of snow. In the morning, snow has turned to ice, making the steps leading down to the subway platform treacherous. You slip, fall and break your ankle around 8 am.
While the MTA is responsible for maintaining adequately safe stairs, expecting its employees to do so by 8 am (for every station in the City) the day after a storm is unreasonable.
In court, the MTA could logically argue that all employees were tied up clearing ice at other stations. In this situation, it’s unlikely you have a good case.
The Good Example
Water has been leaking from an overhead pipe in a subway station for weeks. A bitter streak of cold nights turns that puddle into a dangerous patch of ice. Crucially, it’s black ice and very hard to see. You slip, fall and break your ankle.
If the MTA received prior notice of the leak, they were given ample time to fix it. Because they failed to do so, you probably have a viable case.
3. Failure To Address Hazard In A Timely Manner
We’ve told the MTA there’s a problem in one of their stations and given them a reasonable amount of time to make repairs.
Did they do anything about it?
If not, and you get injured as a result, your personal injury attorney has a lot to work with.
Extra Steps When Suing The City
In an attempt to deter lawsuits, New York makes it intentionally difficult to sue governmental agencies like the MTA. There are several extra hurdles that injury victims will have to overcome:
Notice Of Claim
In order to take advantage of New York’s sovereign immunity waiver, you’ll have to file a “notice of claim” within 90 days of an accident, or within 90 days of the appearance of symptoms caused by an accident on government property.
While you can file a notice of claim on your own, we do not suggest it. Many lawsuits are prematurely dismissed after claimants name the wrong defendants. Are you sure the MTA is who you should be suing?
Next, the State gets a 30 day period to begin investigating your allegations. You cannot initiate a lawsuit before these 30 days are up.
Section 50-h of New York State’s General Municipal Law allows governmental agencies to demand a “50-h” hearing after being served your Notice of Claim. This hearing is not considered part of your trial, but the statute’s vague language is often assumed to give the municipality’s investigators carte blanche in the scope of their questioning.
In short, you may have to “go to trial” before your trial actually begins.
Shorter Statute Of Limitations
For slip and fall claims involving private citizens or businesses, New York State allows injured people three years after their accident to file a lawsuit.
If you want to sue a governmental agency, you have only 1 year and 90 days.