What is The California Tort Claims Act?

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If you are hit by a speeding delivery truck driven by the employee of a delivery company, you can sue the employer, who is likely to have more insurance than the employee. That's called vicarious liability. But what if the speeding vehicle is a city bus? Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the answer is no. But thanks to the California Tort Claims Act, the answer is yes. The California Tort Claims Act gives you the right to sue a public entity for money damages.

The California Tort Claims Act

Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, nobody can sue the government for anything. It's a holdover from the longstanding "royal rule" in England whereby kings and queens can't be sued. This was interpreted to prevent any lawsuits against any form of government. In fact, the general rule in the United States is that you can't sue a government entity.

But many states have enacted laws that allow individuals to bring claims against public entities for the negligent, reckless or intentional conduct of their employees. The California Tort Claims Act is one of those laws, allowing certain specified claims to be brought against government agencies, departments or municipalities.

If a person is injured by the actions of a government employee, they can't sue the employee personally under the California Tort Claims Act. Rather, they can file a suit against the agency or entity that employed the employee. A government entity or agency is responsible for any negligent acts committed by its employees if:

Types of Claims You Can Bring

The Act is called the Tort Claims Act because it covers tort claims brought against government agencies. What does tort mean? It means actions for personal injuries caused by someone else's negligence or reckless conduct.

Tort actions stem from a breach of the general duty of care as we all have to act in a way that won't injure others. Tort claims can be brought for personal injury negligence, premises liability, wrongful death or creating a dangerous condition, among other causes of action. Under the California Tort Claims Act, you can sue the state, a county, a city or any public entity from a municipal bus company to a state park.

But despite its name, the California Tort Claims Act isn't limited to cases for tort damages. Other types of damages are available. All claims for civil liability (meaning suits for money) are covered, including:

  • Car accidents.
  • Truck or bus accidents.
  • Slip and fall accidents.
  • Other premises liability cases.
  • Negligence by medical professionals.
  • Breach of contract. 
  • Nuisance.
  • Cases against teacher and school districts.
  • Assault and battery.
  • Other intentional torts.

California Tort Claims Act Exceptions

The Act generally does not allow claims for other types of actions. A person cannot sue under the California Tort Claims act for injuries suffered from the government's failure to do its job of making and enforcing laws. For example, you cannot sue for injuries you suffered because the government:

  • Passed or didn't pass a certain law or regulation. 
  • Enforced or failed to enforce a law. 
  • Issued or failed to issue a permit or license. 
  • Failed to inspect or improperly inspected the property of a third party. 

Finally, a person usually cannot get punitive damages against the government or its agencies. Punitive damages are not issued to compensate a victim but to punish a wrongdoer, and often require a showing of recklessness, fraud or intentional harm. But regardless of the showing, you won't get punitive damages under the California Tort Claims Act since they are specifically excluded from liability under the law.

California Tort Claims Act Statute of Limitations

Statutes of limitations are laws putting a time limit on the right to bring a law suit. For example, if you are in a car accident caused by another driver and you suffer personal injuries, under the statute of limitations, you have two years from the date of the accident to bring the cause of action. If your car is damaged and you want to sue for property damage, you have three years from the date of the accident. If you are a party to a written contract and the other party breaches it, you have four years to sue.

But if you want to sue a government or public entity for any of these types of damages under the California Tort Claims Act, do not rely on the regular statute of limitations. The Act itself sets a limitations period for filing a claim, and it is much shorter than the regular statute of limitations. The guideline period for filing your claim is six months from the date of the accident or incident if your claim is for:

  • Personal injury. 
  • Damage to personal property.  
  • Damage to crops. 
  • Wrongful death.

You have one year to file a claim for:

  • Breach of contract.
  • Damage to real property. 
  • Equitable estoppel. 

Missing the deadline may mean that you cannot file at all. However, there is an application for late filing that a claimant can file in certain circumstances, like minority, incapacity or death. Note that failure to timely file because you were unaware of the law is not a valid reason for filing late.

Giving the Government Notice

Usually a statute of limitations sets a time limit on filing an action in court. However, the time frame set out in the California Tort Claims Act is for filing a claim with the government entity to provide it with notice. Anyone who tries to file their claim in court before giving notice to the government will find themselves with a dismissed case.

Providing notice requires a different type of document than the summons and complaint you use for filing a lawsuit. Many departments, agencies and municipalities have prepared a California Tort Claims Act form that a person making a claim must use. If the entity doesn't provide its own claims form, you have to prepare a letter or report that includes:

  • Information about yourself including your name and address. 
  • Information about the incident including date, place and circumstances.
  • Information about the negligent employee if you know it. 
  • The amount you are claiming in damages if it is less than $10,000. 
  • Whether the amount is less than $25,000 (if you are seeking more than $10,000) and if you are not seeking non-monetary relief. 

If you are suing a local government entity, file the claim with the its governing board or clerk. If you are suing the state, file with the California Department of General Services, Office of Risk Management.

Filing a Case in Court

Within 45 days of the date a claim is filed, the government agency must respond. If it responds and approves the claim, you get a check for your damages and go on your way.

If the agency responds, but denies the claim outright, you have only six months to file a petition with the Superior Court, asking to be relieved from the claims requirement. If that is granted, you file a regular summons and complaint with the court. If the agency doesn't respond at all within 45 days, the claim is deemed denied and you have two years to take the matter to Superior Court.

The agency can also respond and seek additional information. Usually they will only do this if you have omitted one or more of the types of information that the agency form requires. You can amend the complaint to provide the information and resubmit.

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