Articles Master of Public Administration

An Overview of Civil Liability for Public Administration Professionals

Civil liability is a legal responsibility to compensate an individual in the event of unlawful injury to his or her person or property; in such cases, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims is tasked with proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is liable for a breach of civil law. All U.S. citizens and organizations can be tried for civil liability—and government entities are no exception.

Enacted in 1887, The Tucker Act removed the U.S. government’s immunity from being prosecuted for civil claims that were, “founded either upon the Constitution, or any Act of Congress or any regulation of an executive department or upon any express or implied contract with the United States.” To shield organizations from the negative impact of civil liability claims, public administrators must understand the standards for each type of civil liability and the ways in which their clients may be exposed to significant risk; therefore, it is essential that civil servants educate themselves on the parameters and challenges relative to civil liability.

Gavel next to a book on Personal Injury Law

Breach of Contract

A contract is a written or spoken agreement of employment, sale, exchange or tenancy that is binding by law. When such an agreement is broken, it is categorized as breach of contract, and the party who was wronged by the breach is free to petition a court to award them damages in the form of financial compensation. Government organizations frequently look to private contractors to perform work on behalf of public organizations, and in the event of a breach of contract, the harmed party has the right to bring its case before the Court of Claims. Noncompliance with a contractual promise can take many forms, including but not limited to the refusal to perform the actions stated in the contract; display of conduct that suggests an inability to honor the contract; or contractual agreement to achieve an unattainable goal, such as committing to a demonstrably impossible time frame. The exception to this rule is when one party directly interferes with the other party’s performance and compromises the ability to honor the contract.

A breach can occur for a number of reasons. For instance, a group of public administration professionals working with the government may cancel a contracted pursuit because they believe the project is no longer in the best interest of the public. Or, a breach might occur if a private contractor working on a government project is unable to fulfill their promised obligation. However, regardless of the reason for the breach, governmental public administrators can protect themselves from individuals, like contractors, who might breach a contract to take advantage of the system. For example, by law, the government cannot be compelled to award compensation in an amount exceeding the total sum of money originally appropriated to a project. As a public administration professional, being aware of the implications of a breach of contract is crucial to the decision-making process, especially when establishing new public contracts.

Product Liability

When consumers receive a product or service, it is expected that the provider will fulfill his or her obligation without causing loss or harm to the customer. If the use of goods and services causes damage to property and/or personal injury, product liability deems the supplier or manufacturer of that product or service to be at fault. Public administrators usually encounter instances of product liability when government contractors with whom they work deliver harmful services or produce defective equipment and technologies. In cases where a government contractor is found to have conclusively provided faulty goods or services, public administrators are responsible for diverting liability to the contractor. According to the American Bar Association, if the government contractor defending himself in such a case cannot prove that he and his organization were in compliance with U.S. laws and safety standards, plaintiffs may claim product liability based upon any of the following:

  • Negligence: The manufacturer of a defective product, companies that utilize said faulty product without recognizing an obvious defect, and vendors who sell the product to consumers are considered liable for any injury resulting from use of the defective product. Negligence can be argued if the product itself is defective, was not properly inspected and tested, was not supplied with necessary warnings and directions for safe and correct use, or was delivered in harmful or inadequate packaging.
  • Breach of Warranty: Warranties are written guarantees issued to consumers by the manufacturer, promising restitution in the event that a product is defective or unusable. If a manufacturer cannot or does not stand behind this promise, he or she can be held liable for breach of said warranty.
  • Misrepresentation: When a product is promoted falsely, intentionally concealing potential hazards that should be disclosed to consumers, the seller of that product is held liable for any damage it may cause.
  • Strict Product Liability: Strict liability applies to cases where it can be proven that, regardless of intent or direct neglect, a defect has rendered a product unreasonably dangerous, causing injuries. This theory extends a seller or manufacturer’s liability for a defective product to encompass all individuals who are harmed by the use of the product, even if they do not own it themselves. For instance, if a parent invites children to a party and several of the attending children are harmed by a defective toy that was available at the party, the parent may be liable for allowing the children to play with the toy. However, the strict liability falls upon the manufacturer of the defective product, warranting a strict liability lawsuit.

Personal Injury

Personal injury cases usually aim to determine liability for incidents that cause physical, mental, or emotional damage as the result of negligence, typically following medical malpractice, an automobile accident, pedestrian accident (e.g., slip and fall), or injury caused by ultra-hazardous activities (e.g., use of explosives). To avoid personal injury claims, public administrators must use guided leadership to educate their staff on the best methods of performing their work with a reasonable amount of care; additionally, these administrators must strictly regulate public initiatives, like construction projects, that may pose a potential risk to people’s physical health.

Civil claims of personal injury also extend to non-physical injuries. Such cases may be argued when a plaintiff feels his or her reputation has been damaged due to harmful acts, such as slander, false arrest, wrongful eviction, or a violation of personal privacy, the latter of which is exemplified by an administrator publicly misrepresenting a citizen’s character to such a degree that it causes actual harm to the citizen’s reputation. Such acts can result in steep financial and reputational consequences if litigated in the Court of Claims. Therefore, it is important that public administrators fully acknowledge citizens’ rights as protected under civil law and use that knowledge to coordinate practices that do not cause personal injury—physical or otherwise—to their constituents.

Strict Liability

Strict liability is a standard for civil liability that deems a person or organization responsible for damages caused by their actions and products, even if their actions were not negligent or they held no direct fault; simply put, any act that leads to harm—regardless of intent—results in strict liability. For example, if the transportation of dangerous chemicals results in an incident that caused civilian casualties, the entity responsible for transporting those chemicals is strictly liable for the consequences, regardless of whether they implemented all legally mandated safety measures. When the Court of Claims determines that strict liability applies to a personal injury lawsuit, the prosecutor does not need to prove any negligence or intent to cause harm—they need only prove that the plaintiff suffered harm.

Alternatively, strict liability cases may arise from the inherently dangerous activities that fall within the purview of public administration professionals, like construction, use of dangerous chemicals, and transportation. For instance, even if all of the proper safety measures are put in place to keep a train from derailing, any personal harm caused by a train accident invokes strict liability, negating any potential defense for the railway operator. Therefore, public administration professionals must take every possible measure to prevent their policies and actions from causing harm, but must also prepare to address instances of strict liability when and if they arise.

Property Disputes

Property law covers personal and real property. Personal property is defined as physical items of value—like livestock or priceless art—as well as intellectual property such as patents, stocks, and copyrights. Real property refers to land, all resources below the surface of that land, and any structures that have been built above ground on said property. Public administration professionals are commonly tasked with helping resolve property disputes by reviewing, regulating, and documenting property ownership, as well as protecting certain categories of intellectual property. When disputes over any of these types of property are settled in a Court of Claims, the defendant may be required to pay reasonable damages, return the property, or replace the property with something of equal value. Property disputes between public and private parties may be categorized in one of three ways:

  • Trespass to Chattels: A defendant physically interferes with an individual’s right to use his or her own property (for instance, taking, destroying, or displacing a neighbor’s tools without permission).
  • Trespass to Land: A defendant enters an individual’s private property without receiving permission from the owner of that land (accessing another person’s home through a private entrance without permission).
  • Conversion: A defendant uses an individual’s personal property without receiving consent from the owner (cutting down a tree on another person’s property without permission).

Public administrators should note that, beyond helping to resolve private property disputes, there are instances in which public administrators may find themselves defending against a property claim. For instance, this may occur when law enforcement groups are instructed to seize private property without proper legal justification. If it is proven that a public entity unrightfully seized a citizen’s property and that person decides to file a claim, public administrators may be responsible for paying legal fees, restitution, or returning the property to the plaintiff.

Civil liability cases can harm the reputation of a public organization, as well as cause financial damage, but it is the impact that negligence can have on citizens that should be of the utmost concern to public administrators. To avoid harm coming to their constituents, public administrators must promote safe, sustainable practices and effectively lead the members of their organization towards strategies that utilize the services of reliable contractors. Advanced coursework in public administration can provide professionals with the knowledge necessary to draft contracts, coordinate plans, and create policies that do not infringe on any individual’s civil rights—thus mitigating the risk of civil liability lawsuits.

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December 2017