The Virginia Supreme Court ruled yesterday that government employees who are involved in traffic accidents while on routine duty are not protected from lawsuits because they are public workers.

The ruling, which upheld a 1989 verdict by a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury, could affect hundreds of cases in the state involving victims injured in accidents in which government employees driving government cars were allegedly at fault, according to a spokesman for the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.

Until now, courts around the state have differed in their views on whether public employees could be sued in such cases.

The ruling "affords a remedy to the common man which might not have been there before this decision," said Benjamin W. Glass, of Arlington, who argued the case before the court last February.

Glass represented Demetrick Clemons, a construction worker who was riding a motorcycle on Sept. 26, 1988, when a Fairfax County sheriff's deputy pulled out of a parking space and hit him, according to court records.

The deputy, Ferdinand J. Heider, had just finished serving a warrant.

In a suit filed against the deputy, Clemons claimed that Heider was negligent and a jury awarded Clemons $375,000.

The county appealed, claiming that a deputy sheriff who was operating a vehicle to perform his duty was entitled to be protected by sovereign immunity, a legal concept holding that a government cannot be sued without its consent.

The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the defense of sovereign immunity does not apply to traffic accidents that occur on routine duty. At the same time the court ruled yesterday that government employees who are driving vehicles in emergencies, such as police officers in a chase, are protected by sovereign immunity.

The decision in the Clemons case was hailed yesterday as significant by the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.

Leslie Herdegen, the director of government and public affairs, said the ruling could possibly affect hundreds of injured victims each year, "people who might not have had a way to recover."

Peter Andreoli, a senior assistant Fairfax County attorney, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said the ruling could mean "instead of having an additional defense {of sovereign immunity}, you're basically back in a position of using other defenses that other drivers have."

The ruling, he said, should not increase the liability of counties or cities.

"It would be nice to have that additional defense," he said. "But certainly it is not crippling not to have it."

In other action yesterday, the Associated Press reported, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a plan to issue $60 million in tax-free bonds for the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is unconstitutional because the school's mission is primarily religious.

The court unanimously overturned a decision last March by Circuit Judge Mosby G. Perrow III, that the Lynchburg Industrial Development Authority could issue the bonds.

Falwell had sought the bonds to sever Liberty's financial ties to the Old-Time Gospel Hour television program, finance construction projects and consolidate the school's debts.

But the Supreme Court said the distinction is clear.

It noted that other private, church-supported schools that have received tax-free financing did not require students to attend religious services and "subscribed to a set of well-established principles of academic freedom."

The same could not be said of Liberty, the court said.

Falwell said in a statement issued by the school that the ruling discriminates against evangelical Christians.