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Sovereign immunity caps do not apply to motor vehicle negligence claims against individual government employee defendants

Vol. 80, No. 2 / March-April 2024

Journal Scott Templeton


Scott Templeton is a Kirksville lawyer and an assistant professor of business administration at Truman State University. He has a bachelor of business administration from Iowa State University and a juris doctor from the University of Missouri School of Law.


There can be any number of challenges to putting together a successful case of automobile negligence on behalf of an injured plaintiff.

When the defendant is a government entity or government employee, additional challenges in the form of claims of governmental immunity can be expected. The Supreme Court of Missouri has described the applicability of and interplay between the different immunity theories as “muddied” and “murky,” and one commentator described the need to “demystify” this area of the law.1 Confusion may remain, but there should no longer be any dispute that sovereign immunity caps do not apply to claims based upon motor vehicle negligence against individual government defendants. 

Governmental immunity theories 

The three primary theories of governmental immunity in Missouri are: 1) sovereign immunity; 2) official immunity; and 3) the public duty doctrine.2 It is important to recognize that sovereign immunity is exclusively applicable to government entities while the official immunity and public duty doctrines are exclusively applicable to individual government defendants sued in their individual capacities.3 

Sovereign immunity is a judicial doctrine which precludes a suit against governmental entities without their consent on the ancient concept that the “king can do no wrong.”4 The doctrine originated in England and became applicable in Missouri when, upon its establishment, Missouri adopted the English common law.5 The Supreme Court of Missouri did away with the doctrine in Jones v. State Highway Commission after considering six “justifications” for its continued application and rejecting them as being “illogical and unconvincing and not compelled by constitutional mandate.”6 The legislature quickly responded by reinstating a modified form of sovereign immunity with the enactment of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.600 (1977) which restored such sovereign immunity as existed at common law as of the date of the Jones decision, with exceptions for “[i]njuries directly resulting from the negligent acts or omissions by public employees arising out of the operation of motor vehicles or motorized vehicles within the course of their employment.”7 

Official immunity protects public officials sued in their individual capacities from liability for alleged acts of negligence committed during their official duties for the performance of discretionary acts if there is no showing of malice.8 The public duty doctrine provides that there can be no cause of action against a government employee for injuries sustained because of an alleged breach of duty to the community as a whole.9 

Government employees driving in routine, non-emergency, nondiscretionary situations are not entitled to official immunity or to the protection afforded by the public duty doctrine.10 Official immunity protects government employees from liability from their discretionary, as opposed to ministerial, acts.11 Simply failing to abide by traffic rules and regulations in a non-emergency is not a discretionary act that triggers official immunity.12 Similarly, a government employee’s duty to operate a motor vehicle with the highest degree of care and to obey traffic rules and regulations is not a duty owed to the public at large to justify application of the public duty doctrine. 13 

Due to the statutory waiver of sovereign immunity, causes of actions based upon negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle can also be maintained against government entities, but the waiver of sovereign immunity is subject to statutory caps.14 When the legislature reinstated sovereign immunity with the waiver for automobile accident claims, it provided a per-person and per-accident statutory cap.15 The per-person cap was originally $100,000 but raised to $300,000 with increases or decreases based upon an inflationary index.16 Arguments have repeatedly been made and rejected that these caps apply to claims against individual defendants, perhaps stemming from confusion related to the different immunity theories. 

Sovereign immunity caps do not transfer to individual government defendants 

The issue was first addressed by the Supreme Court of Missouri in State ex rel. Trimble v. Ryan17 where the plaintiff filed a negligence action against the Bi-State Development Agency and the driver of a Bi-State bus. The defendant driver claimed the sovereign immunity statutory caps were applicable to him.18 The opinion doesn’t supply any legal support for or reasoning behind that contention. The Court held that official immunity did not apply given that the driver was performing the ministerial act of navigating a left turn and directed the trial court to make its judgment clear that the statutory cap did not apply to the driver.19 

The Missouri Court of Appeals-Western District tackled the issue in Cottey v. Schmitter,20 where the plaintiff alleged negligence on the part of a snowplow driver working in the course and scope of his employment with the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. The trial court entered judgment against the employee in the full amount of the damages but limited the judgment against MHTC to the applicable statutory amount.21 The defendant claimed the judgment against him should also have been reduced to the statutory caps.22 His theory was the sovereign immunity caps were triggered on the basis that the State Legal Expense Fund was required to pay the judgment and, as such, it was essentially a claim against the State of Missouri.23 The court of appeals rejected this theory and affirmed the trial court’s decision to reduce the judgment only as to MHTC, but not as to the employee.24

The Missouri Court of Appeals-Eastern District next considered the issue in Cole v. Warren County R-III School District,25 a personal injury lawsuit against both the school district and its employee school bus driver. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the trial court reduced the judgment with respect to the sovereign school district pursuant to the caps provision of § 537.600 but denied the motion to reduce the judgment against the employee driver.26 The defendant driver argued the “intent of the statute, to limit liability, would be thwarted and violate public policy” if the cap were not applied to him as well.27 The court of appeals rejected that argument, relying upon Cottey in holding that the trial court properly refused to reduce the judgment against the employee because sovereign immunity “is not transferable to the employee.”28 

The issue popped up again more recently in Brancati v. Bi-State Development Agency.29 In that case, it was admitted that a Bi-State employee failed to yield the right-of-way to a bicyclist.30 The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $625,000.31 Thereafter, Bi-State filed a motion for remittitur asking that the judgment be reduced to the then per-person statutory cap of $414,418 for both defendants.32 In so doing, Bi-State conceded the sovereign immunity cap had never been applied to an individual government defendant, but nonetheless asked the court to overrule prior case law on the subject without any credible explanation as to why it was appropriate to depart from the various decisions of the Supreme Court of Missouri and the Missouri Court of Appeals.33 The Missouri Court of Appeals-Eastern District quickly rejected the argument, stating succinctly: “We decline to do so.”34 

The common theme from each of these cases is that there is no viable claim that sovereign immunity caps are applicable to individual government defendants. 


Whether it is confusion over the immunity doctrines or the laying of a trap for the unwary or simply wishful thinking, claims continuously resurface that sovereign immunity caps should apply to individual government defendants. These claims will continue to be rejected. Sovereign immunity is applicable only to governmental entities. The doctrine has been waived by statute for all Missouri public entities in connection with negligence claims related to motor vehicle accidents. The official immunity and public duty doctrines do not apply in an ordinary, non-emergency motor vehicle accident situation involving a governmental employee. The sovereign immunity waiver is subject to caps, but sovereign immunity is not applicable to claims asserted against individual governmental employees and the sovereign immunity caps do not transfer.


1 Southers v. City of Farmington, 263 S.W.3d 603, 608 (Mo. banc 2008); Shane K. Blank, King’s Court: Demystifying Missouri’s Governmental Immunity Doctrines, 71 J. Mo. B. 192 (2015).

2 Southers, 263 S.W.3d at 608.

3 Rustici v. Weidemeyer, 673 S.W.2d 762, 768 (Mo. banc 1984); Southers, 263 S.W.3d at 613.

4 St. Louis Sewer Dist. v. Bellefontaine Nbrs., 476 S.W. 3d 913, 921 (Mo. banc 2004); BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY at 1252 (5th Ed. 1979).

5 O’Dell v. School District of Independence, 521 S.W.2d 403, 406 (Mo. banc 1975). For a very thorough evaluation of the history of sovereign immunity in Missouri, see Blank, supra note 2 generally and specifically as to this issue at 197 n.11.

6 Jones v. State Highway Commission, 557 S.W.2d 225, 230 (Mo. banc 1977).

7 MO. REV. STAT. § 537.600(1); Southers, 263 S.W.3d 603, n.5; Boever v. Special School District of St. Louis, 296 S.W.3d 487, 493 (Mo. E.D. 2009).

8 State ex rel. Alsup v. Kanatzer, 588 S.W 3d 187, 190 (Mo. banc 2019).

9 Southers, 263 S.W.3d at 612.

10 Brown v. Tate, 888 S.W.2d 413, 415 (Mo. App. W.D. 1994); State ex rel. Trimble v. Ryan, 745 S.W.2d 672, 675 (Mo. banc 1988). Whether a motor vehicle accident occurs in a routine, non-emergency, nondiscretionary situation can be hotly contested. See State ex rel. Barron v. Beger, 655 S.W.3d 356 (Mo. banc 2022). 

11 Kanagawa v. State by and through Freeman, 685 S.W.2d 831, 835 (Mo. banc 1985); Davis v. Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, 193 S.W.3d 760, 763 (Mo. banc 2006).

12 Brown, 888 S.W.2d at 415.

13 Id. at 416.

14 MO. REV. STAT. § 537.610.

15 MO. REV. STAT. § 537.610 (1986) (imposing a $100,000 per person and a $1 million per accident or per occurrence cap).

16 “The limitation on awards for liability provided for in this section shall be increased or decreased on an annual basis effective January first of each year in accordance with the Implicit Price Deflator for Personal Consumption Expenditures as published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the  United States Department of Commerce.” MO. REV. STAT. § 537.610(5). The per person cap in 2023 is $488,755. https://insurance.mo.gov/industry/sovimmunity.php.

17 Trimble, 745 S.W.2d 672, 675 (Mo. banc 1988).

18 Id. at 679.

19 Id.

20 24 S.W.3d 126 (Mo. App. W.D. 2000).

21 Id.

22 Id. at 129.

23 Id.

24 Id.

25 23 S.W.3d 756 (Mo. App. E.D. 2000).

26 Id. at 758–759.

27 Id. at 761.

28 Id.

29 571 S.W. 3d 625 (Mo. App. E.D. 2018).

30 Id. at 630.

31 Id.

32 Id. at 636.

33 Id. at 637.

34 Id.