Pittsburgh Legal Back Talk

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High Official Immunity has a Long History in Pensylvania.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | February 4, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle

Dismissal of a suit in federal court against former Washington County District Attorney John Pettit serves as a reminder that you can’t sue City Hall, not for tort damages at least, not in Pennsylvania, when a high public official is acting within the scope of his employment.

In a case involving a suit against a prosecutor, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Durham v. McFlynn, 772 A.2d 68 (2001), summed up the gist of the law on the subject as follows:

“It has long been held that high public officials are immune from suits seeking damages for actions taken or statements made in the course of their official duties. This common law doctrine existed before the enactment of the Political Subdivision Tort Claim Act . ..”

Sometimes a case will turn on whether the public official in question is “high” enough. District attorneys, who make policy, are clearly high public officials. But what about the assistant district attorney? In Durham the Supreme Court held that ADA’s were essential to the DA in doing his job. The immunity was not for the purpose of protecting the official, but benefitting the public. It would serve no public purpose if the DA were immune from suit while the ADA who handled the case was required to defend.

Other cases may turn on the question whether the official was acting within the scope of her authority. See Testa v. City of Philadelphia.

A member of the State Legislature, while making a speech on the floor of that body, is privileged to slander anyone.

When a public official is deemed not to be a high public official, qualified immunity may still be available. The United States Supreme Court recently decided an important qualified immunity case (mentioned last Fall in PLBT before oral argument), creating a significant change in the law. But that is a subject that deserves a whole new post. Maybe more. Stay tuned.



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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