A tragic accident can have a devastating effect on friends and family of the victim. That devastation can get even worse when no one is held accountable for the accident. This past June a homeless man was killed at a beach in Virginia Beach (click here for a picture of the area) when he was hit by a city trash truck. The man’s family had filed a 25 million dollar lawsuit alleging that the city, the city truck driver, and her assistants, were “grossly negligent” in operating the trash truck. A Circuit Court judge recently ruled, however, that the city of Virginia Beach could not be sued for the man’s death. So how did he reach that conclusion?
He ruled that the city could not be sued because the accident occurred during routine public business. The judge agreed with the city’s argument that it was protected by sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity shields governments from civil lawsuits arising from incidents that happen in the course of normal public business. He called garbage collection a “classic sovereign immunity activity.”
The judge’s ruling was well received by the deputy city attorney. “We think the court got it right today,” said Chris Boynton, a deputy city attorney. “What happened on the beach was a tragic accident and our deepest condolences go out to the family, but we have an obligation to only pay those claims that are demonstrated in court as valid.”
The family of the homeless man wasn’t echoing the deputy attorney’s sentiment, but not all is lost. They intend to appeal the decision. The ruling only applies to the family’s claim against the city. As a result, they can still move forward with the claims against the city’s truck driver and his two assistants.
The 52-year-old homeless man had been called “Gray Wolf” at the Oceanfront and was known for his fondness for live music at the beach. The city has apologized and paid for his funeral. It also offered to create a program in his name to combat homelessness. Nevertheless, none of those measures can make up for what happened. The “Gray Wolf” can never get his life back and his family can no longer see him. It remains to be seen what happens with the remaining claims, but no matter the outcome, the events leading to the tragedy need to be carefully scrutinized.