When you’re harmed by the negligence of a private individual or business, you always have the option of filing a personal injury lawsuit in your state's civil court system. But what if you’re hit by a city bus, or trip over broken floor tile at the DMV? How can you get compensation from the city or state for causing your injuries?
The specific answer depends on the law of the state that you’re in (see below for links to each state’s rules). In general, states make these kinds of claims difficult to win. If you think you have a case against your state or local government, here are some key points to keep in mind.
Even if you think the answer is obvious, you should find out for sure which government (including which specific agency) was legally responsible for the property where you had your accident.
For example, let’s say you’re leaving the train station and you slip and fall as you exit the building. You fell because the pavement was poorly maintained and left dangerously cracked and uneven, and now you want to pursue a negligence claim.
But which government and what agency is responsible? Cities are generally responsible for the safety of public sidewalks. But if you fell on the train station’s property you might need to seek compensation from the local public transit agency, or from the state department of transportation.
In a situation like this it’s important to:
You may need to speak with employees on site and follow up by phone or email to be sure that you pursue a claim against the correct agency. An attorney may also have helpful advice if you’re having trouble finding the information you need.
Every state follows some version of a legal doctrine called sovereign immunity. This basically means that you need the government’s permission to file a lawsuit against the government.
So, what’s the process for getting compensation if you’ve been harmed by government negligence?
In some states you can file an administrative claim and then, if necessary, a lawsuit. Most states use a two-step system where you start by filing a claim directly with the government. The government will evaluate your claim and decide how much compensation, if any, it thinks you should receive. Once you get a final decision through this process—or in some states, if you don't receive any kind of response at all after a certain amount of time has passed—you can take your case to court if you don’t think you got a fair result.
In other states the entire process is handled outside of the court system. Some states, like Kentucky and Arkansas, either completely bar negligence lawsuits against the government, or only allow them in very narrow circumstances. That means you can’t go to court at all. Instead, you’d present your case to a government panel called a claims commission or board of claims. That panel evaluates the evidence and makes a final decision about what compensation—if any—to award you.
The administrative process begins when you file paperwork notifying the government of your claim. Where you submit your claim will depend on the state you’re in and which agency or entity was responsible for your damages. For example, most claims against the state of California must go through its Government Claims Program, but there are important exceptions. For example:
Your initial claim must usually include details like:
If you miss the government-imposed filing deadline, you risk losing your ability to pursue your claim. These deadlines are often tighter than you might think. In Texas, for example, you have six months from the date of your injury to file a claim against a state agency, but only 45 days to file a claim against the City of Austin.
If your state allows you to sue the government once the administrative process is over, there will also be a time limit for how long you can wait before filing your lawsuit.
You can use the links below to learn more about how this process works in specific states. You can also read about the rules for filing a negligence claim against the federal government. If you’ve been injured, and have questions about your options for seeking compensation, it may also be helpful to get advice from an attorney.