Diplomatic immunity is a form of legal immunity that exempts diplomats from lawsuits or prosecution under the host country’s laws. The idea is that diplomats require immunity if they are going to serve in “unfriendly” nations or during times of conflict. After all, who would want to serve as a diplomat in a foreign country, knowing they could be imprisoned or executed just for showing up to work?
Of course, it’s not hard to imagine the problems that can crop up when a group is immune from lawsuits or prosecution. The City of New York famously spent more than a decade chasing millions of dollars in parking violations issued to scofflaws who happened to be diplomats. Diplomatic immunity even occasionally becomes fodder for Hollywood – anyone remember Lethal Weapon 2?
So if you’ve been involved in an accident with a diplomatic vehicle you may be primed to expect the worst. But before you vow to go vigilante like Riggs and Murtaugh you may want to read on. And, yes, that will be the final Lethal Weapon 2 reference.
The 1978 Diplomatic Relations Act and the Foreign Missions Act requires that any vehicle owned and operated in the U.S. by a member of a foreign mission carry liability insurance coverage at all times. In fact, all foreign missions must provide the Office of Foreign Missions with written proof of continuous insurance coverage. As of the date of the writing of this article the minimum acceptable limits of liability coverage are $300,000 combined single limit (i.e. $300,000 each accident), or split limits of $100,000 personal injury per person, $300,000 personal injury per accident and $100,000 property damage per accident.
But how does this work in practice if diplomatic immunity prohibits a lawsuit against the owner and driver of a vehicle with diplomatic plates? The answer is found in a federal statute: 28 U.S.C. §1364. That statute gives federal district courts “original and exclusive jurisdiction” in any civil action brought by a person against an insurer who insures a member of a diplomatic mission.
In essence the law allows for a lawsuit by the plaintiff directly against the insurer of the diplomat. The lawsuit is tried in federal court, without a jury and is not subject to the defense that the insured is immune from suit by reason of diplomatic immunity. From the standpoint of the plaintiff, the fact that the case is brought against the insurer instead of the insured shouldn’t matter. The result is what does matter, namely just compensation for the victim for the injuries they sustained.