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Alabama: State Agencies Have Absolute Immunity in a Court of Law or Equity

The Supreme Court of Alabama held that state agencies can never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity. The ruling resulted after the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) filed a petition for writ of mandamus against the Montgomery Circuit Court for a dismissal of claims filed by Jean and Scott Clowers.

Jean Clowers was involved in a collision with Isabella Cowan while Cowan was driving an ADOC van for the work release center to which she was assigned. As a work release prisoner, Cowan was in ADOC’s custody at the time. Clowers claimed the ADOC was vicariously liable for the accident, and sued for negligence and wantonness. Scott Clowers joined the action for loss of consortium with his wife.

The ADOC filed a petition for writ of mandamus in May 2016, arguing it was entitled to sovereign immunity under Art. I § 14 of the state constitution. On August 25, 2017, the Alabama Supreme Court held a writ of mandamus is an extraordinary measure that is viable only when there is a clear legal right, the duty of a respondent is ignored, there is no other adequate remedy available and jurisdiction of the court is invoked. It is a proper vehicle to address a court’s failure to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity.

The Supreme Court wrote that the immunity granted under § 14 is absolute; it is not an affirmative defense, but a jurisdictional bar. It may not be waived. A claim filed solely against the state or any state agency is void from the beginning, and any action taken by a court against the state agency, other than dismissal, is void.

The petition was granted and the writ issued. See: Ex Parte Alabama Department of Corrections, 2017 Ala. LEXIS 74 (Ala. 2017). 


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Related legal case

Ex Parte Alabama Department of Corrections