If you are knocked over by a speeding meter maid, fall into an open hole left by gardeners in Golden Gate park or get rear-ended by a firetruck, you need to know something about the California Government Claims Act, also known as the California Tort Claims Act. This law carves out an exception to the rule that a citizen cannot sue a government entity. It allows claims for money damages in certain circumstances, but you'll have to follow a very different procedure and a shorter time frame than you would use to sue in court.
Why Is Suing the Government Different?
California's Government Code sets out the law regarding whether government agencies can be sued for injuries they and their employees cause. The statutes say that government employees are just as liable as anyone else for tort injuries they cause to others, but then note that they are not liable if they are acting within the scope of their jobs.
This is called civil immunity, and it is a part of the doctrine of sovereign immunity that was initiated by the all-powerful kings of England centuries ago. They imposed a law that kings and queens could not be held liable for injuries they caused – that you could not sue a sovereign – a doctrine that traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States where it is the general law today.
Under sovereign immunity, you can't sue any government agency for the on-the-job actions of employees even if they were negligent. However, the California legislature carved out a large exception to sovereign immunity in the Government Claims Act, more often called the California Tort Claims Act.
What Is the Government Claims Act?
California's Government Claims Act is a state law that allows for and regulates claims against public entities in the state. The law sets out the specific requirements for presenting a governmental claim against the appropriate public entity including how the claim should be presented, to whom it should be presented and the timing of the claim.
What kinds of claims does this act cover? California government claims include all claims against the State of California and any cities and counties in the state. This includes claims against public hospitals, public transport systems, public schools and other agencies and departments operated by a public or governmental entity.
The general rule regarding the claims is simple: If you were injured by a government entity and wish to hold them liable, follow the procedure set out in the code to the letter. If you don't jump through the hoops set out in the law, you can lose your chance to bring your case.
What Kinds of Claims Can You Bring?
The Government Claims Act is often called the California Tort Claims Act because tort claims are covered. These are claims for money damages for injuries caused by a government employee's negligent or reckless behavior where the government is vicariously liable for the behavior of their employees. Tort claims include all personal injury claims including wrongful death claims.
The act also permits premises liability claims. However, these are only actionable under the law if you can show that the government had notice of the dangerous condition and the time to repair it.
But the Government Claims Act is not limited to torts. It also covers claims for breach of contract and claims for damage to personal property and real property. Equitable estoppel claims can also be brought under the act.
How Do You File a Claim?
The procedure for making a claim against a government or agency in California is very different from suing in court. You must begin the process by giving notice of your claim. The statute sets out all the information you have to provide in the claim notice. This includes your identifying and contact information as well as a complete description of what happened and when, including all the information you have that identifies the employee at fault. You must also set out the amount of damages you claim if it is under $10,000.
In some cases, you can write up all the claim notice in a letter or report with all the required information included in it. But many agencies and cities provide their own California Government Claims Act forms that you must use to file the claim. Check with them before you proceed. You file the notice of claim with the agency or government entity responsible for the damages.
How Long Do You Have to File the Claim?
Don't look to the California statutes of limitations for tort or contract claims to figure out the timing on providing notice under the Government Claims Act. The act contains its own limitations period during which you must file a claim or lose your right to file. And it's a short one! The limitations period for claims is much shorter than the relevant statutes of limitations so keep your eyes on the calendar.
The California Government Claims Act sets out two different time limits for a claim. You must file within six months of the incident if you are claiming damages for:
- Personal injury.
- Personal property damage.
- Damage to crops.
- Wrongful death.
You can file within one year of the incident if you are suing for:
- Contract breach.
- Real property damage.
- Equitable estoppel.
What If You Miss the Deadline?
If you have a claim but you miss the deadline, all is not necessarily over. You have the right to ask for permission to file a late claim but these requests are not readily granted. The fact that you didn't know about the deadline is not a valid excuse.
There are only four reasons that a late claim will be considered, which include:
- Mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.
- Being a minor for the entire period from the incident through the claims deadline.
The “reasonableness” of a particular delay is determined on a case-by-case basis. It's far better to file on time.
What Happens After You File the Claim?
Once you file your claim, you wait. The public entity has a deadline in most cases of 45 days to respond or take action. The deadline varies slightly, depending on whether you mail the claim or turn it in personally and, if you mail it, from where you mail it.
In any event, in less than two months, you should hear back on the claim. The agency can:
- Reject the claim explicitly on its merits.
- Reject the claim by failing to respond within the time period.
- Reject the claim as being untimely filed.
- Ask for further information.
- Approve the claim in full or in part or offer a compromise.
Can You Take a Rejected Claim to Court?
If your claim is rejected, you can move the case to court if you like, but you aren't obligated to. You can also let it drop.
If you decide to go to court, you first file a petition with the California Superior Court to proceed without the claims requirement. You have six months to file this petition if your claim was rejected by notice from the agency. If the agency failed to respond within the 45 days, you have two year to file the petition.
If the Superior Court grants the petition, you must act fast. You only have 30 days to file the lawsuit. Miss this at your peril, since missing the deadline can mean that you can never file the suit again. If the court denies your petition to proceed without the claim requirement, you can appeal this ruling.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative 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.