If a private company poisoned your water supply you’d have grounds for a lawsuit. The reason for this is obvious, poisoning your water causes damage to both your person and property. Because of this the only way to make things as right as possible is for the poisoner to pay reparations. But the rules are different when the State poisons your water supply because it enjoys a legal fiction called sovereign immunity:
Michigan’s state and local officials poisoned Flint’s water with lead but innocent federal taxpayers are the ones having to foot the cleanup bill. President Obama has pledged to hand Flint $85 million in aid money. This sounds like a lot, but the fact of the matter is that it is far less than what Flint’s victims would have gotten if a corporation — rather than government — had been the culprit. That’s because, unlike private companies, the government is shielded from liability lawsuits.
The main reason that they don’t have a prayer of collecting much more is something called the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Under this doctrine, citizens are barred from suing their government for screw-ups that it has caused in the course of discharging a core function unless the government itself consents. Some very narrow exceptions exist but it is very difficult to make them stick.
We’re often told that governing bodies within the United States contain a series of checks and balances. The federal government has legislative, executive, and judicial branches that are supposed to keep each other in check. Municipal governments are supposed to be kept in check by country governments which are supposed to be kept in check by state governments which are supposed to be kept in check by the federal government. Reality is much different though.
Instead of acting as a checks and balances the various pieces of the government more accurately reflect a circlejerk. Each part works to absolve the other of responsibility.
People have sued parts of the government before but only after it consented to being sued. Herein lies the major difference between private entities and the State. When a private entity causes you damage you can sue them whether they agree to allow you to do so or not. Suing the State requires getting its permission to do so. Since the State enjoys a monopoly on legal services within its borders you have no recourse if the State tells you to go pound sand when you come asking for permission to sue it.