California's Premises Liability Laws and Its Sovereign Immunity Laws

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California's premises liability laws and its sovereign immunity laws are two completely different legal arenas. Premises liability laws make landlords liable when they do not use due care in maintaining their property and someone is injured by that failure. California sovereign immunity laws prevent state and local governments and governmental entities from being sued by its citizens for personal injuries. What happens when those two legal arenas collide?

Premises Liability in California

California's premises liability laws are based on the principle that a property owner is responsible for injuries to another person caused by a failure to exercise ordinary care in managing and maintaining the property. Whether a property owner met his duty of care is determined by comparing his actions to the actions that a reasonable property owner would have taken under similar circumstances. At trial, this is usually a matter for the court to determine.

Premises liability cases are brought when a person is injured on someone else's property. If the injury was caused by the negligence of the person who owned or controlled the property, the injured party can recover their damages in court. It is up to the court to determine whether the property owner's negligence caused the injuries.

Premises Liability Damages

Typical personal injury cases brought under California's premises liability law include slip and falls, amusement park accidents, falls down dark or slippery stairs, dog bites and swimming pool accidents and drownings. If the person who owned or controlled the property is found to be negligent, the victim can recover both economic damages and non-economic damages caused by the accident.

Economic damages can include:

  • Bills for medical care.
  • Estimates of fills for future medical treatment.
  • Value of wages lost.
  • Any lost earning capacity.
  • Bills for property damage.

Some of the losses victims suffer from personal injuries include non-economic damages, which are damages that don't have a monetary value. These can include losses like pain and suffering, loss of a limb or other body part and being disfigured or badly scarred.

In rare cases, a jury may award an injured person damages to punish the property owner for reckless or intentional wrongdoing. These are called punitive damages in California and awarded very occasionally in premises liability cases with a showing of egregious conduct.

California's Sovereign Immunity Doctrine

Centuries ago in England, the kings did not want ordinary people to be able to sue them. They instituted the doctrine of sovereign immunity, a hard-and-fast rule that kings and queens (sovereigns) cannot be held liable for much at all. This doctrine was carried over to other types of government in England, and the concept was brought to the colonies.

In the United States, it was initially held that sovereign immunity was an absolute doctrinal position making all levels of government – federal, state and local – completely immune from any personal injury liability. Today, some governmental entities, including the state of California, have waived liability to some degree in certain circumstances by enacting laws to allow public entity liability.

Premises Liability on Government Property

The doctrines of premises liability and sovereign immunity collide when someone is injured on property in California belonging to a state or local government. There are so many different buildings and chunks of land owned by the government that it isn't hard to think of examples of possible injuries, from slip-and-falls on the slick stairs of San Francisco's Court Building to drownings at a beach where no riptide warning was posted.

California's compromise between the premises liability law and the sovereign immunity law is yet another law, this one called the California Tort Claims Act. It carves out a large exception in the doctrine of sovereign immunity by allowing individuals to file claims against government entities for certain types of injuries. One of these is premises liability – but only when the government entity had notice of the dangerous condition.

This means that if you are injured on government property in California and can establish that they had notice of the condition that injured you, you can file a claim for your damages. However, there are very specific hoops you must jump through to file a personal injury lawsuit against the government including very quick timing.

Premises Liability Under the California Tort Claims Act

Because of the California Tort Claims Act, the state, city, county or federal government may be liable for personal injuries that occur on property owned or controlled by the government under principals of premises liability. This is the case if the injuries resulted from a dangerous condition on the property.

However, premises liability claims under the California Tort Claims Act require different proof than ordinary premises liability. If you bring a case for premises liability against a public entity, you'll need to show:

  1. That the property was in a dangerous condition when you were injured.
  2. The injury was caused by the dangerous condition.
  3. That because of the dangerous condition, there was a foreseeable risk of this type of injury and either a negligent or wrongful act or omission of government employee who created the dangerous condition while acting within the scope of employment, or the government entity had actual notice of the dangerous condition or constructive notice of it as well as enough time to have acted to protect against the dangerous condition.

Note that the public agency can be liable either through its employees' actions or because it had notice of the dangerous condition. Actual notice means that the entity actually knew about the dangerous condition. Constructive notice means that the dangerous condition existed for a long enough time and was obvious enough that the entity should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.

Read More: California Tort Claims Act: Provisions & Legal Questions Answered

Filing a Claim Under the California Tort Claims Act

The big procedural differences between filing a premises liability case in court and filing a claim under the California Tort Claims Act are the timing and the claims process.

In terms of timing, you've got to move forward quickly once you are injured or else you will lose your opportunity to sue. For most premises liability claims, you have only six months from the date of the injury to file proper notice of the claim. While there are procedures for seeking permission to file a late claim, there are no guarantees that you will be allowed to do this. Generally if you don't file in time, you lose your right to proceed against the government entity.

The second big difference is what and where you file. You do not prepare a legal summons and complaint like you do for an ordinary premises liability case. You must generally use a claims form that the agency or municipality has put together that requires precise information about yourself and your claim.

The claim is not filed in court as an ordinary complaint for premises liability would be. Instead it is filed with the government entity itself. Once you file the claim, the government entity as 45 days to respond to your claim in writing. They can grant it, deny it or ask for further information. If they grant your claim, you accept the check and go home happy. If they deny the claim, you can petition the court for permission to file a case.