Missouri Soveriegn Immunity--a new loophole on caps?

Posted By Kansas City Personal Injury Attorney || 14-Sep-2011

Under Missouri personal injury law, government and public entities are immune from certain causes of action, however, if a dangerous condition exists on the property then the government or public entity is liable.

Even when they are liable, Missouri law affords a limit on the amount an injured person can recover from these entities, basically, $300,000 per injured person, adjusted for inflation. See Missouri Statute 537.610(2), stating:

The liability of the state and its public entities on claims within the scope of sections 537.600 to 537.650, shall not exceed two million dollars for all claims arising out of a single accident or occurrence and shall not exceed three hundred thousand dollars for any one person in a single accident or occurrence

However, what if the public entity has more than $300,000 in insurance coverage? Is that a waiver of the sovereign immunity limit of $300,000? Recently the court addressed that very issue in Farm Bureau Town & Country Ins. Co. of Missouri v. American Alternative Ins. Corp. In the Farm Bureau case, which involved a Missouri car accident with serious personal injures, the issue was addressed of whether or not a public entity (a fire protection district in this particular case) waives the sovereign immunity limit of $300,000 by purchasing insurance coverage in excess of that amount. The analysis of the case has wrote:

"Section 537.610.1 allows political subdivisions of the state to purchase liability insurance for tort claims and waives sovereign immunity `only to the maximum amount of and only for the purposes covered by such policy of insurance' or self-insurance plan.'" Kunzie v. City of Olivette, 184 S.W.3d 570, 574 (Mo. banc 2006). If the entity "maintains insurance that covers these types of claims, then it will have waived its immunity under section 537.610 for the specific purpose of and to the extent of its insurance coverage." Id. This waiver through the purchase of insurance effects "an absolute and complete waiver of all immunities." Id. The insurance effects such waiver when, "the plaintiff's claim falls within the purposes covered by the defendant's policy." Hummel v. St. Charles City R-3 School Dist., 114 S.W.3d 282, 284 (Mo.App. E.D. 2003). Here, it was stipulated that "[a]s a result of the . . . accident . . . various claims were asserted against [Mr.] Day" and that the amounts were "reasonable and were necessary to settle the claims against [Mr.] Day." .

Consequently, the Fire District waived sovereign immunity to the limits of the AAIC policy. This case may open the door to getting around the sovereign immunity limits in Missouri personal injury cases, and each case will be very fact specific, particularly, the language of the insurance policy and how it addresses, if at all, any waiver of the limits.