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Ryan v. State: The Abolition of Broad Tort Immunity for Government Entities and Employees

Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine that shields certain government officials and entities from liability for some tort actions. However, the doctrine of qualified immunity does not insulate government officials and entities from all liability. This has not always been the case. At one point in Arizona’s history, public entities and employees were protected by broad common law government and sovereign immunities. This blog post explores the landmark case Ryan v. State (“Ryan”), which laid the hammer down on broad governmental immunities and allowed tort actions for some individuals injured by government entities or employees. 

Any conversation of Ryan must mention Stone v. Arizona Highway Commission (“Stone”). In Stone, the Arizona Supreme Court first rejected the broad governmental immunities. (Stone v. Arizona Highway Commission (1963) 93 Ariz. 384, 381.) However, in the years following Stone, the Arizona Supreme Court limited the application of Stone and found that sovereign immunity did not apply to tort actions against the government. (Massengill v. Yuma County (1969) 104 Ariz. 518.)   

Almost 20 years later, the Arizona Supreme Court revisited the issue of governmental immunity from torts in Ryan. In Ryan, a 17-year old inmate escaped from custody at the Arizona Youth Center. (Ryan v. State (1982) 134 Ariz. 308.) He then robbed a convenience store using a sawed-off shotgun and shot Ryan, a shopper. Ryan sued the State of Arizona for the serious injuries he sustained. Specifically, Ryan pled that the State of Arizona was negligent and grossly negligent in supervising the inmate, who had a history of multiple escape attempts.   

The Court rejected Massengill v. Yuma County’s rule that qualified immunity did not apply to torts. The Ryan Court quoted a famous New Jersey holding to explain the public policy of limited immunity: “We think that a sound public policy requires that public officers and employees shall be held accountable for their negligent acts in the performance of their official duties to those who suffer injury by reason of their misconduct. Public office or employment should not be made a shield to protect careless public officials from the consequences of their misfeasance in the performance of their public duties.” (Id.) Further, the Court explained that by passing the Risk Management Act, the Arizona legislature intended to limit public entities and employees’ immune from tort liability. (Id. [citing  A.R.S. 41-621].) 

After the Ryan decision, the Arizona state legislature enacted the Actions Against Public Entities or Public Employees Statute. (A.R.S. section 12-820 et seq.) This statute superseded Ryan yet cemented the spirit of the Ryan into Arizona law. Today, when a person is injured in Arizona by the negligence or gross negligence of a public entity or employee, the government entity or employee may not be able to avoid liability. 

Karnas Law has years of experience litigating on behalf of plaintiffs who have been injured by a government entity or employee. Often times, the government entity or employee will invoke the qualified immunity doctrine in an attempt to escape liability. Karnas Law has a strong track record of defeating dispositive motions on issues of qualified immunity and helping injured parties bring their claims to trial and obtain damages. Contact Karnas Law for your free consultation today. 

 

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