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Blame It on the Weather: Considerations for Litigation Involving Sovereign Immunity

Sovereign immunity is a central feature in tort litigation against governmental entities, but its perimeters vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  In Mississippi, a governmental entity may be entitled to sovereign immunity if it comes within the specifically prescribed exemptions listed in the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA).  See Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-9(1).

One such exemption is the so-called “weather exemption,” which provides:

[A] governmental entity and its employees acting within the course and scope of their employment or duties shall not be liable for any claim:

(q) Arising out of an injury caused solely by the effect of weather conditions on the use of streets and highways.

Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-9(1)(q) (emphasis added).

This exemption should be of interest to anyone prosecuting or defending claims against a governmental entity in which weather conditions were arguably a factor.

Several Mississippi courts have addressed the “weather exception” in the MTCA and provided useful insight.  For example, in Willing v. Benz, 958 So. 2d 1240 (Miss. Ct. App. 2007),  a patch of ice on Highway 82 led to a fatal accident. Id. at 1245.  Plaintiff alleged liability on the part of the City of Greenwood. The Mississippi Court of Appeals found, however, that the City was immune pursuant to exemption (q) “because the ice was caused solely by the effect of the weather on the use of streets and highways.” Id.

In Hayes v. Greene County, 932 So. 2d 831 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005), the plaintiff’s vehicle was struck from behind after plaintiff stopped in order to avoid colliding with the County’s garbage truck traveling ahead of her.  The County claimed that fog was the sole cause of the accident.  The Court of Appeals agreed and held that the County was immune from liability pursuant to exemption (q).  Id. at 832-33.

In a more recent case, Robinson v. Holmes County, 2019 WL 4686447 (Miss. Sept. 26, 2019), the Mississippi Supreme Court considered exemption (q) in another case arising from an accident involving a County garbage truck. Id. at *1.  The plaintiff collided with the rear end of the truck, and as in Hayes, fog was arguably a factor.  Id.  Although the plurality did not address exemption (q) in significant detail, Justice Maxwell’s concurring opinion provided an in-depth discussion of the “weather condition” exemption.  Justice Maxwell agreed with the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the County based on exemption (q).  He found the exemption applicable because plaintiff presented no evidence disputing the County’s showing that fog was the sole proximate cause of the collision.  Id. at *7.

When evaluating litigation involving claims against a governmental entity, defense counsel should review the pertinent sovereign immunity statutes and determine whether there are exemptions like exemption (q) that the governmental body could successfully invoke.  Who knows, you may be able to blame it on the weather!

Benjamin Z. (Ben) Claxton, Sr.