Explain to me the difference between liability for the individual and liability for the agency or municipality.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The difference here is that there are times when a government agency or a city government is liable for the actions taken by people who work for them and there are other times when the people who work for them are liable as individuals.  The general difference is that governments are liable for employees’ actions that are taken in accord with official policy and that individuals are liable for other acts.

There are, of course, many people who work for various levels of the government.  These people take a variety of actions every day.  As we know, our society is rather litigious and it is always possible that someone will take an action that will harm another.  If a government employee takes such an action, it is necessary to decide whether the employee is liable as an individual or if the government itself should be sued.

We must realize that the actual answer to such a question would depend very heavily on the specific facts of the situation.  However, we can generally say that the governmental entity is responsible for any acts that the individual employee commits as a result of following official policy.  Let us look at some examples to see why this is so.

Let us imagine that I teach at a high school.  Let us further imagine that our school has an official policy that states that teachers are not to intervene in physical fights that break out between students.  The policy is put in place so that teachers do not get hurt and so they do not cause students to get hurt.  Now imagine that I see a fight and I do not intervene.  One student gets beaten up and sues me for not preventing it.  As an individual, I probably cannot be held liable because I am following official policy.  In this case, the school district is more likely to be held liable than I am.

Now let us imagine that the school district’s policy is somewhat different.  It requires that teachers intervene in physical fights if they can do so safely.  It requires that they intervene in a way that is not excessive.  Now let us imagine that I see two students fighting.  I grab one student and throw them across the hall as hard as I can.  They hit the wall and get a concussion.  I am much more likely to be liable now because my actions were not necessarily in accord with policy.  Therefore, I am not seen to be acting as an agent of the school district.  I have violated their policies and am therefore seen to be acting as an individual.

There will be cases where both the individual and the government can be held liable to some degree.  In fact, in this second scenario this might be the case if an attorney can convince a jury that the school’s policy was a dangerous one and that my actions were clearly excessive.  But the general idea is that governments are liable when employees act according to policy and individuals are liable when they are not acting according to policy.

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