Northern Ins. Co. of N.Y. v. Chatham County

PETITIONER:Northern Insurance Company of New York
RESPONDENT:Chatham County, Georgia
LOCATION:Board of Immigration Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 04-1618
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 547 US 189 (2006)
GRANTED: Oct 11, 2005
ARGUED: Mar 01, 2006
DECIDED: Apr 25, 2006

Dan Himmelfarb – argued the cause for Petitioner
Miguel A. Estrada – argued the cause for Petitioner
R. Jonathan Hart – argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

James Ludwig’s yacht was damaged when it collided with a drawbridge. Ludwig’s insurance company, Northern, sued Chatham County to recover its costs. The county claimed that it was immune from civil suits due to its sovereign immunity under common law. The District Court agreed and ruled for the county. The court held that the county had sovereign immunity as a local government exercising power delegated by the state. Under Supreme Court precedent, sovereign immunity does not apply to local governments, but only to states and “arms of the state.” Although the county did not qualify as an arm of the state under those precedents, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision. The Circuit Court held that common law nevertheless guaranteed the county a “residual immunity.”


May a county claim sovereign immunity under common law, even if the county is not acting as an “arm of the state”?

Media for Northern Ins. Co. of N.Y. v. Chatham County

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 01, 2006 in Northern Ins. Co. of N.Y. v. Chatham County

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 25, 2006 in Northern Ins. Co. of N.Y. v. Chatham County

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has the opinion in 04-1618 Northern Insurance Company of New York verses Chatham County, Georgia.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Respondent Chatham County, Georgia — Chatham County is where Savannah, Georgia is located, which for a variety of reasons is a notable city.

Chatham County owns, operates and maintains a drawbridge over the Wilmington River.

Petitioner Northern Insurance Company insured a boat that was damaged by the drawbridge.

Petitioner filed suit in admiralty against respondent in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.

Although respondent conceded that immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of United States Constitution does not extend to counties, it contented that it was nevertheless immune from the lawsuit under the, “universal rule of state immunity from suit without state’s consent”.

Relying on circuit precedent, the District Court concluded that sovereign immunity extends to counties that, “exercise power delegated from the state”.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed, relying on the same Circuit precedent.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Our cases have recognized that only states and arms of the state are entitled to immunity.

An entity qualifies as an arm of the state only if it satisfies the tests that we have applied in our sovereign-immunity cases.

There is no residual sovereign immunity that permits adoption of a broader test.

The question on which we granted certiorari presumes, as the county concedes below, that the county is not an arm of the state under our sovereign-immunity cases.

That concession dictates our holding that the county is not entitled to sovereign immunity.

We also hold that there is no distinct sovereign immunity from in personam admiralty suits.

We have historically applied the same immunity principles to admiralty cases as to other federal cases.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.