Legal Memorandum: Tort Liability of the State in RI

Issue: Under Rhode Island law, what is the extent of a law enforcement officer’s immunity from tort suits?

Area of Law: Government Claims, Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Tort suits against the state government; Sovereign immunity
Jurisdiction: Rhode Island
Cited Cases: 555 A.2d 328; 643 A.2d 822; 585 A.2d 65; 508 A.2d 647; 588 A.2d 1044; 664 F.2d 830; 390 A.2d 350; 709 A.2d 1050
Cited Statutes: R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-31-1 (1999)
Date: 05/01/2000

           Rhode Island’s legislature has instituted a statute allowing tort suits against the state government and its political subdivisions.  R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-31-1 (1999).  Despite the seeming import of the abrogating statute, the state supreme court has refused to broaden its effect:


There can be no questioning the fact that the General Assembly, in enacting § 9-31-1, has sharply reduced the broad notion of sovereign immunity . . . .  However, we do not believe that the Legislature ever intended the statute to operate so as to impose liability upon the state for any and all acts or omissions of its employees and officers which might cause injury to persons. 

Calhoun v. City of Providence, 390 A.2d 350, 353 (R.I. 1978) (holding that some immunity is necessary for effective governance and exempting judges and state attorneys general from the statute).

A later Rhode Island decision, Pelletier v. Kurdziel, 508 A.2d 647 (R.I. 1986), extended this exception to the statutory abrogation of sovereign immunity to police officers.  In Pelletier, a police officer directed a teen-aged driver to proceed to the police station for further investigation into the status of her license and the vehicle.  The […]

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