There is no shortage of people who are aggrieved by license suspensions and revocations imposed by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. Fortunately for my clients, I have been able to reverse many of these license suspensions and revocations on appeal. When this happens, some clients express a desire to sue the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds.
A doctrine called “sovereign immunity” can often be used to protect the Registry of Motor Vehicles from being sued. Sovereign immunity is based on English common law and it insulates the government from being sued without its consent, based on its status in society. The rationale often cited to support the doctrine is “the king can do no wrong” or that the public treasuries would become depleted by having to pay off lawsuits. It specifically covers “any claim based upon the issuance [of] any permit, license, certificate, approval, order or similar authorization.”
The Registry has successfully used “sovereign immunity” to protect it from suit. For example, a driver sued the Mass. Registry when he got arrested for drunk driving after having been stopped by the police because a Registry computer errantly listed his car’s registration as revoked. The Registry was declared immune and the suit was dismissed. In another case, the Mass. Appeals Court ruled that the RMV was immune from liability for issuing duplicate driver’s license to someone who impersonated another driver.
In dismissing a suit against the Registry, the Appeals Court held that “[g]iven the volume of persons served and records generated by RMV, § 10(e) embodies a legislative determination that even lamentable clerical errors, such as the one here, should be immunized from litigation.”
Based on these rulings, it looks like whoever said “you can’t fight city hall” was probably right.