Making an Injury Claim Against the Government in Pennsylvania

Learn when you’re allowed to sue Pennsylvania and its local governments, and the special steps and deadlines involved in bringing a personal injury claim.

Updated by , Attorney University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 9/19/2023

Suppose a Pennsylvania government employee carelessly ran a red light and hit your car, injuring you. Or maybe you tripped and fell on a dangerous sidewalk owned or maintained by the City of Philadelphia. Can you bring a personal injury claim or lawsuit to get compensation for your injuries?

Yes, probably so. Pennsylvania law allows the state and its local governments to be held accountable for some of the personal injuries they cause, just like private individuals or businesses. To bring a claim, you'll need to follow extra steps and meet special deadlines. If you don't, chances are you lose your right to recover. We'll cover the basics of bringing a personal injury claim against Pennsylvania and its local governments.

Government Immunity: The King Can Do No Wrong

When the American colonies were formed, they inherited many of their legal rules from England. One of those rules was called "sovereign immunity." Under English law, the king or queen, as sovereign and lawmaker, could do no wrong. They were immune from legal responsibility for what would otherwise be wrongful acts.

Government immunity today. Today, our governments—federal, state, and local—enjoy similar immunities. Sovereign immunity shields the federal and state governments. Local governments like counties, townships, and cities are immune under a similar rule called "governmental immunity."

Governments have partially waived their immunity. So what does this immunity mean for your personal injury claim? It means that as a general rule, the government isn't legally responsible for injuries and damages it causes unless it consents to be held liable by "waiving," or giving up, its immunity.

The federal government has partially waived its immunity in a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act. The states have all passed similar laws, partially waiving immunity for themselves and their local governments.

But if you want to bring a personal injury against the government, you must follow the rules the government has laid down. Typically, these rules:

  • only allow you to bring claims for specific kinds of cases
  • require you to give the government written notice of your claim within a fairly short time after you're hurt
  • shorten the time you have to file a lawsuit in court, and
  • limit the amount of money you can recover (what the law calls "damages") for your injuries.

Pennsylvania has created two laws partially waiving immunity and giving consent to be sued. The Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act applies to the state itself. A second law called the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applies to Pennsylvania local governments.

The Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act

Pennsylvania partially waives its sovereign immunity and consents to be sued—but only in certain kinds of cases—in the Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act. You'll find this law at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8501-8528 (2023).

Waiver and Consent to be Sued

Under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8522(a) (2023), Pennsylvania has waived immunity only for injuries and damages caused by the state's negligence (carelessness). The state hasn't agreed to be responsible for claims based on intentional torts—deliberate misconduct that causes harm.

In other words, if you're hurt by the state's careless action, you might be able to bring a claim for damages. But if a state worker does something intentionally that causes you harm, your options will be more limited.

What Kinds of Claims Does Pennsylvania Allow?

Pennsylvania hasn't agreed to answer for all negligent harms. The kinds of claims it allows are listed in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8522(b) (2023). Here are some of the most common.

  • Car accidents. You can recover damages after a car accident when the at-fault driver was a government employee or was on official government business at the time of the crash.
  • Medical malpractice. When you're injured by the medical negligence of a state employee or health care facility, you can bring an injury claim against Pennsylvania.
  • Personal property or animals. If you're hurt because Pennsylvania or a state employee negligently stores, moves, or controls personal property (other than radioactive materials) or an animal, you can bring a personal injury claim.
  • Dangerous government property. Pennsylvania allows premises liability claims for slip and fall and similar accidents caused by dangerous conditions on government property.
  • Liquor liability (dram shop law). Dram shop laws allow you to recover damages from both an intoxicated person and the place that sold or served them the alcohol. In some circumstances, Pennsylvania law extends this liability to state-owned liquor stores.
  • Negligent maintenance of roadways. When a pothole or other dangerous condition on a state-owned or controlled roadway causes an injury, you can bring a claim for damages.

Types and Amounts of Damages Allowed

In a personal injury claim against Pennsylvania under the Sovereign Immunity Act, damages are capped at $250,000 per person and $1,000,000 per incident. You can recover damages for your:

(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8528 (2023).)

The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

In the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, found at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8541-8564 (2023), Pennsylvania has waived governmental immunity and consented to suit on behalf of its political subdivisions. The substance of the Tort Claims Act is similar to the Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act.

Waiver of Immunity and Consent to Suit

Pennsylvania local governments, like the state itself, are on the hook for negligent acts by the government or by government employees acting within the scope of their duties. Pennsylvania law doesn't waive local governmental immunity for intentional harms. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8542(a) (2023).)

Kinds of Claims Allowed

For the most part, the Tort Claims Act allows the same kinds of claims against local governments as are allowed against the state. (See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8542(b) (2023).) Here are some of the most common.

  • Car accidents. When you're injured by the negligent operation of a government-owned or controlled vehicle, you can sue the local government and the at-fault driver. This rule doesn't apply if you were injured while trying to run from the police.
  • Personal property and animals. Local governments are liable for injuries caused by the negligent care, custody, and control of personal property and animals, including police dogs and horses. They're not responsible for injuries caused by wild animals.
  • Dangerous government property. As long as you're not trespassing, you can bring a claim for personal injuries you suffer in a fall or a similar accident caused by a dangerous condition on local government property.
  • Streets and sidewalks. Local governments can be held responsible for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on streets they own, as well as sidewalks located within the right-of-way of those streets. The government must have had notice of the dangerous condition in enough time to fix it.
  • Trees, traffic signals, and street lights. When dangerous conditions caused by trees, traffic signals, and street lights result in personal injuries, the local government might be liable for a claim. Here too, the government must have had enough notice of the dangerous condition that it was able to take corrective measures before the injury happened.

Types and Amounts of Damages Allowed

Here are the kinds of damages you can collect in a claim under the Tort Claims Act:

  • medical expenses
  • past and future lost earnings and loss of earning capacity
  • loss of consortium
  • loss of support
  • property losses, and
  • pain and suffering, but only in cases resulting in death, or those where medical expenses exceed $1,500 and the injuries cause permanent loss of a body function, permanent disfigurement, or permanent dismemberment.

Damages for all personal injury claims resulting from a single occurrence can't exceed $500,000.

(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8553 (2023).)

Notice of Claim and the Statute of Limitations

Before you can sue Pennsylvania or a local government, you first have to give the government written notice of your claim. You must send the notice, within six months from the date of your injury, to the responsible government agency. If your claim is against Pennsylvania, a copy of the notice also must be delivered to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.

The notice must include:

  • the name and residence address of the person who was injured and, if different, the person who's bringing the claim
  • details of the accident, including the date, hour, and approximate location, and
  • the name and address of any attending physician.

If you don't file the required notice, then any lawsuit you try to file more than six months after the date of injury must be dismissed.

(42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5522 (2023).)

Filing this notice is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in court, but it isn't the same as filing a lawsuit. If you want to sue the government for your personal injuries, you must file your case within the personal injury statute of limitations. The filing deadline is two years, usually from the date of your injury. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524(2) (2023).)

Next Steps

Suing the government isn't a simple matter, even if your claim seems simple. In addition to the immunities we've described here, there are other immunities and defenses that the government and its employees can—and likely will—raise. You can bet that the government will be represented by experienced lawyers who know their way around personal injury claims.

As a rule, you only get one chance to make your case for compensation. Make it a fair fight by hiring experienced legal counsel to represent you. Here's how you can find a lawyer who's right for you and your claim.

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