Generally you can't sue a government, including the state, counties and municipalities in California, for negligent or intentional harm. However, a law called the California Tort Claims Act (CTCA) allows you to bring a suit against the government for money damages in some cases. But you'll have to jump through a lot more hoops than you would when bringing an action against a private party.
What Is Sovereign Immunity?
Nobody likes to be sued, and powerful rulers are no exception. That's why, centuries ago in England, the king decreed that nobody could sue him. The concept that a sovereign is immune from lawsuits is called sovereign immunity.
The federal government in the United States, as well as all state and municipal governments, have some type of sovereign immunity, laying down a general law that a public entity and its employees cannot be sued for damages. But many states carve out limited exceptions to this policy.
What Is the California Tort Claims Act?
The California Tort Claims Act is one of those exceptions. By enacting it, the California legislature lifted sovereign immunity to some extent, allowing for state liability for injuries in some cases. But in order to sue for personal injuries caused by the state, its agencies or its employees, you must follow very specific requirements.
The California Tort Claims Act sets up a very strict claim procedure that must be followed to the letter if you want to sue the government for damages. The law restricts both the way you present your claim and its timing.
Read More: What is The California Tort Claims Act?
What Is a Tort?
The California Tort Claims Act allows state liability for torts. But what exactly is a tort under this law? What types of injuries can you sue for? The word tort in French means a wrong, as an error or an injustice. Just so, in English, a tort is a wrongful act that causes injury to someone. It can be a negligent act or an intentional one, or even a failure to act when there was a duty to take action.
It's easier to understand the concept of a tort by example: Driving negligently or under the influence of alcohol and hitting a pedestrian is a tort. Leaving a banana peel on the floor of your restaurant that someone slips on is a tort. Surgically removing someone's left leg when it was their right leg that needed amputation is a tort, as is knocking over an innocent bystander in a bar brawl. If you don't act with the care the law requires, and someone is injured as a result, the action is a tort and you can be sued for money damages.
What Claims Are Covered?
By its terms, the California Tort Claims Act covers all lawsuits claiming money damages. That means you can sue the government for most classic tort actions, like all types of vehicular accidents, slip and fall injuries, interfering with a contract, any medical or dental negligence cases, premises liability cases and injuries caused by intentional physical threats and attacks. Actions against California teachers also fall under this law.
Specific kinds of actions are not included even if they do cause damage. You can't sue under the CTCA for injuries you suffered because the government failed to enact or enforce a law or regulation. You can't sue for injuries resulting from the state's decision to issue or not issue a permit, license or certificate, or its failure to inspect property owned by a private party. Nor can you sue for injuries caused by the California National Guard.
Whose Torts Are Covered?
A government acts through its agencies and the people working for them. It's the actions of these entities on a state, county or local level that can result in government liability under the CTCA if the actions cause injuries.
A California government agency can be sued under the CTCA for negligent acts of its employees or independent contractors if they were acting within the scope of their employment or carrying out a government function. The lawsuit is brought against the agency, not the employee.
Government entities can also be found liable for premises liability for the existence of dangerous conditions on government property, but only if the public entity knew or should have known about the dangerous condition with enough time to correct it. Finally, when the law imposes a duty on a California public entity that it fails to carry out, it may be liable for resulting damages.
What Is the Required Notice?
Although the California Tort Claims Act gives you the right to sue the government or its agencies for tort damages, very different rules apply to bringing these claims than apply to bringing tort claims against private parties. Before going to court, you have to prepare a damage claim and send it to the agency at fault. To begin a case against a private party, all you need to do is file a lawsuit. Being served with a summons and complaint is often the first time the defendant hears about the suit. But that is not the case for a lawsuit against government agencies in California.
Rather, when you want to bring a claim against a government agency, you have to give them notice of the claim before you sue. Sometimes a memo or letter is enough, but with some agencies, you need to fill out specific claims forms to provide notice.
What Must a Claim Include?
Whether you write a letter or fill out a specific claims form, be sure to provide all the requisite information. This includes identifying information about you, the person or agency at fault, and the incident. You'll need to provide:
- Your name and address.
- Address to which you want notices sent.
- Description of what happened, including the date and place.
- Description of your injuries and damages.
- Name(s) of the person or persons who caused the problem if you know them.
- Amount you claim as damages if the total is less than $10,000.
- How you calculated the damages.
If you are claiming more than $10,000 in damages, you have to specify if your claim is a "limited civil case." It is if you seek less than $25,000 in damages not including costs and attorney fees; you do not want a permanent injunction against a government entity; and you're not asking for declarative relief or enforcement of an order under the state's family code.
When Do You Have to File Notice?
While you want to do a thorough job preparing a notice of your claim, it's important to keep one eye on the calendar. The CTCA has very strict guidelines for the timing of a claim against a California government entity. If you miss the deadline, your claim could be dismissed.
If you file a personal injury case against a private party, you have a certain time to file. But the CTCA claims period is much shorter. You'll have to file the claim within six months of the date of the injury if it involves personal injury, wrongful death or damage to crops or personal property. In a few particular circumstances, such as medical malpractice, the period starts from the time you discover or should have discovered the injury.
All claims that aren't subject to the six-month limit must be filed within a year of the injury. These include claims for real property damage and breach of contract. If you miss the deadline, you'll need to file an application for late filing based on one of the possible excuses set out in the law, which include death or incapacity of a claimant; the claimant being under the age of 18; or mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.
What Happens Next?
The government agency you're making the claim against has 45 days to act on your claim. It can take any of these actions:
- Accept the claim and pay you damages.
- Fail to act at all which constitutes a rejection of the claim.
- Reject the claim for being late.
- Reject the claim on its merits.
- Ask for more information.
If your claim is rejected, you can ask to file suit in state court against the government entity. The first step toward that end is to file a petition with the appropriate superior court asking to be relieved from the claims requirement. You have six months from a rejection notice to make this filing, but two years from the rejection if the governmental entity simply failed to respond.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.