Qualified immunity is a defense that protects public employees in Nevada — including police — from civil liability when they cause injuries or property damage while carrying out their official job duties. However, qualified immunity is not available as a defense if the government employee either:
- acted in bad faith, or
- acted unreasonably
Therefore, law enforcement officers who committed police misconduct in Nevada may not be able to escape civil liability in a personal injury lawsuit if their actions were unjustifiable or not in line with their training.
People injured by a state or city employee in Nevada are never barred from bringing a personal injury lawsuit against the state or city government. In many cases, accident victims may be able to avoid a lawsuit altogether by filing a notice of claim and settling with the government.
In this article, our Las Vegas Nevada personal injury attorneys discuss:
- 1. Suing police and public employees in Nevada personal injury cases
- 2. Suing police and government officials in federal civil rights cases
- 3. Suing the government in Nevada personal injury cases
Nevada’s qualified immunity laws shield government employees from liability for any damage or injuries they cause while they are performing their job. Specifically, government employees may not be held liable for accidents that occur while:
- exercising an essential job duty (such as a police officer administering a breathalyzer test on a DUI arrestee), or
- exercising a discretionary job function (such as a public school gym teacher punishing unruly students by making them run extra laps)
Nevada courts grant government employees substantial leeway to make decisions about how to react to the varied situations they are presented with throughout the day. Even if any harm they caused was avoidable, qualified immunity should still protect them from liability as long as they were acting reasonably.
Example: A murder suspect leads police on a high-speed car chase through a Henderson neighborhood. During the chase, one of the police officers makes a wide turn in order to stay on the suspect’s tail and in the process sideswipes a parked vehicle. In Nevada, qualified immunity probably would protect the police officer from property damage liability even if making a wide turn was not necessary to catch the suspect. Since the police officer was reasonably acting in the course of his duty, he should not be prosecuted for negligently causing property damage.
Learn more about car accident lawsuits in Nevada.
Note that qualified immunity does not serve as a defense in personal injury cases if the government employee acted in “bad faith.” In other words, personal injury victims may sue law government employees personally if they deliberately act in an unlawful or unreasonable way.
Example: A liberal UNLV political science professor fails a conservative student in his class solely because of his politics. If the student can show that he did not otherwise deserve to fail and that the professor acted unreasonably, then the professor cannot claim qualified immunity if the student decides to sue him.
Learn more about personal injury lawsuits against Nevada schools.
Note that qualified immunity extends to not only public employees in Nevada but also independent contractors hired by the state or city. Therefore if the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department hires a phlebotomist at a private hospital to draw a DUI suspect’s blood, the phlebotomist may then be able to claim qualified immunity for any injuries arising out of the blood draw.1
Government officials accused of breaking federal law can claim qualified immunity under federal law as long as they were acting reasonably in the course of their job. These cases frequently involve police officers accused of committing Section 1983 civil rights violations in Nevada.
Example: A LVMPD police officer is performing a traffic stop on a suspect for failure to yield when the suspect suddenly flees. While chasing after him, the officer warns the suspect that he will get tased if he does not stop. The suspect keeps running. The suspect seems to be at a healthy weight and is not otherwise compromised, so the officer decides to tase him once. The suspect falls to the floor and enters into a coma for several days, which is an unusual reaction to being tased once. If the suspect then sues the officer for violating his constitutional rights by tasing him, the officer can probably claim that qualified immunity protects him from prosecution. Even though the suspect sustained injuries by falling into a coma, the officer acted reasonably and lawfully under the circumstances: It is standard police practice to tase an escaping suspect, the officer gave a verbal warning, the suspect seemed healthy, and he tased him only once.
Similar to Nevada law, federal qualified immunity laws do not protect government officials from prosecution if they acted in bad faith or were clearly unreasonable. Or as the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”2
Example: A LVMPD police officer is performing a traffic stop for running a red light when the suspect suddenly runs away. The suspect does not seem armed or dangerous, but the officer presumes he is dangerous because he is black and shoots him. After the suspect falls to the ground and holds up his hands in surrender, the officer lets his police dog maul the suspect. Later the suspect sues the police officer for violating his constitutional rights by using racial profiling in Nevada, unlawful deadly police force in Nevada, and unlawful use of police dogs in Nevada. The officer probably would not be able to claim qualified immunity because his actions were clearly outside the bounds of what is considered reasonable.
The law is clear that police should avoid deadly force to catch suspects who are not dangerous and to cease inflicting physical force on a suspect once he/she is subdued. In the above example, the officer acted against his training by using deadly force on a non-dangerous suspect and letting his dog harm a suspect who has already surrendered. Even if the officer genuinely felt he was doing the right thing, he should not enjoy qualified immunity protections for behaving unreasonably.3
Sovereign Immunity is an old legal concept that the government is immune from liability simply because it is the government. Fortunately, in Nevada, sovereign immunity does not apply to state and local government in personal injury cases:
Accident victims who have been hurt by Nevada state or local government employees while they are carrying out their duties are allowed to sue the government for damages. Examples of accidents where victims may sue the state or local government for negligence include:
- An RTC bus breaks down on the road and collides into a pedestrian
- A driver’s car falls into a ditch in an improperly maintained city road, causing the driver whiplash
- A Nevada Highway Patrol car malfunctions, causing a crash with another driver
Note that people injured by a government employee while the employee is off-duty usually cannot recover damages from the government.4
Depending on the case, accident victims may be able to sue for compensatory damages to cover their:
Continue scrolling down to learn specific information about suing the state of Nevada and the city of Las Vegas.
When a person gets injured by a Nevada state employee or on Nevada state property, he/she may file a personal injury lawsuit right away and/or submit a completed formal claim form to the Nevada Attorney General. The claim form is a way to avoid litigation and pursue a settlement more quickly.
The claim form asks for the following information:
- the settlement amount being sought
- a description of the accident which caused the injury
- an explanation of why the state is responsible for the injury, and
- medical records and/or property value records, depending on the case
The attorney general’s office will then either approve the claim and pay or else deny the claim. If the claim is denied, the victim can still bring a lawsuit as long as no more than two (2) years have passed since the injury.
Note that personal injury damages against the Nevada state government are capped at $100,000 per claim, and that judges may not impose punitive damages against the government.5
The process of bringing a personal injury lawsuit against the City of Las Vegas is similar to the process of suing the State of Nevada. Victims may either bring a lawsuit right away or try to avoid a lawsuit altogether by submitting a “notice of claim” to the City.
A notice of claim is a formal request for payment of loss, injuries, or damages that the City of Las Vegas allegedly caused. Injured parties can obtain a notice of claim form by calling Las Vegas’s Risk Management Division at (702) 229-4011. Or they can go in person to the following address between 7:00 A.M. and 5:30 P.M.:
Las Vegas City Hall
495 S Main Street, 1st Floor
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Claimants are strongly encouraged to retain an experienced attorney to complete and submit the form. The claimant should attach all supporting documentation to the form, such as:
Note that these supporting documents become public documents once the claimant submits them. Most claims are processed within six weeks.
If the City accepts liability and the parties agree to a settlement, the settlement becomes public record. If the City of Las Vegas rejects liability for the claim, the claimant can then consult with his/her attorney about going forward with a civil lawsuit against the City.
Personal injury cases must be brought within two (2) years of the accident. Also, note that personal injury damages against the City of Las Vegas are capped at $100,000 per claim, and judges may not impose punitive damages against the City.
3.2.1. Car accidents and rental vehicles
When the City of Las Vegas vehicles cause a car accident, the City’s third-party insurance adjuster will offer the victim notice of claim form at the accident scene. The adjuster will also arrange for an “economy class” rental car for the victim if:
- the victim’s car is not drivable from the accident scene, or
- the victim’s vehicle is at a licensed body shot for immediate repairs
Note that the City of Las Vegas will not pay for a rental vehicle in the following three circumstances:
- More than 30 days have passed since the City provided the victim with a rental,
- The victim’s vehicle is drivable even if he/she is waiting for ordered repairs, or
- The rental car has been upgraded from economy class (unless there are extreme extenuating circumstances)
3.2.2. Medical bills following notice of claim
If the City of Las Vegas accepts liability following notice of claim and the parties agree to a settlement, the City will not pay medical providers directly. Instead, the City will reimburse the claimant for doctor’s bills. It is the individual claimant’s responsibility to communicate with his/her medical providers and transmit payments on time.6
Injured in California by a public employee? See our article on the California Torts Claim Act and overcoming qualified immunity in California civil rights cases.
- NRS 41.032; Falline v. GNL v. Corp., 107 Nev. 1004, 823 P.2d 888 (1991)(“[A]n employee who has suffered damage as a result of the negligent or bad faith failure or refusal by a self-insured employer or its administrator/agent, to process and timely pay claims properly asserted under the Nevada Industrial Insurance Act (NRS 616) may pursue a tort action in accordance with the limitations set forth in this opinion.“).
- Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308 (2015).
- Sandoval v. Las Vegas Metro Police Dep’t, 756 F.3d 1154 (9th Cir. 2014)(“For qualified immunity purposes, in determining whether a constitutional right was clearly established, it is not enough that there is a generally established proposition that excessive use of force is unlawful…Rather, the “contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001) It is, however, “not necessary that the alleged acts have been previously held unconstitutional, as long as the unlawfulness [of defendant’s actions] was apparent in light of pre-existing law.” San Jose Charter of Hells Angels Motorcycle Club v. City of San Jose, 402 F.3d 962, 977 (9th Cir. 2005); Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009)(“[A]n officer conducting a search is entitled to qualified immunity where clearly established law does not show that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.”).
- NRS 41.031.
- NRS 41.035; NRS 11; NAC 41.100.
- Id.; Filing a Notice of Claim, City of Las Vegas, Frequently Asked Questions, lasvegasnevada.gov.