If you're injured as a result of someone else's negligence in California, you usually have the option of filing a personal injury lawsuit in the state's civil courts. But what if the negligent party is a government agency or government employee? Let's say a city bus hits your car, or you a trip and fall on a broken staircase at the DMV, for example. The California Tort Claims Act will usually govern any injury claim arising from situations like these, and in this article we'll explain what claimants need to know under this law.
The California Tort Claims Act (CTCA) appears in sections 810 through 996.6 of the California Government Code (GC). It states that, as a general rule, "a public entity is not liable for an injury" caused by the public entity or any of its employees.
This general rule is also known as the rule of "sovereign immunity," which has appeared in U.S. and English laws for hundreds of years. Centuries ago in England, the rule prevented people from attempting to sue the king, even if they were harmed by a decision the king made. In the U.S. today, states have adopted the immunity rule to limit their liability, and then have carved out exceptions through which an injured person can seek compensation for injuries and other losses caused by the government, usually through a strictly-enforced procedure set forth in a statute like the CTCA.
The California Tort Claims Act covers all civil liability claims for "money or damages." In other words, it covers not only negligence cases such as those arising from a car accident, slip and fall, or medical negligence, but also claims like nuisance, intentional wrongs, and breach of contract.
As a rule, a government agency or entity is responsible for the negligent acts of its employees, as long as the negligent person was acting in the scope of their employment and/or carrying out a government function at the time of the accident or incident giving rise to the claim. Under the CTCA, the injured person must file a claim with the agency or entity that employs the negligent person. The CTCA does not permit claims against the negligent employee directly. (This is based on the legal theory of "vicarious liability." Learn more about employer liability for an employee's car accident, for example.)
Public entities in California can also be held liable for injuries that are caused by the negligence of their independent contractors. The same rules apply whether the negligent person was an employee or an independent contractor.
Finally, public entities are also liable for injuries that result from the entity’s failure to carry out a duty imposed on the entity by law. For instance, if a public fire department’s employees negligently chose to ignore a fire, anyone injured in that fire could seek damages under the California Tort Claims Act.
The CTCA does not allow claims for any of the following:
In addition, any claim that is not "for money or damages" cannot be filed under the CTCA. For instance, the California Supreme Court has held that a petition for mandamus (a court order requiring a public official to perform a particular action) cannot be filed under the CTCA, because it is not a request for "money or damages."
Learn more about damages in an injury case.
To file a claim against a state, county, or municipal government in California, the injured person must first give notice of the claim. A written notice must include:
While you can simply write a letter containing this information, many municipalities have online claim portals or forms you can use to streamline the process. For instance, the City of Los Angeles, the City of San Diego, and the City of San Jose all offer claim assistance on their respective websites.
Before a lawsuit can be filed in court, the injured person must give written notice of the claim to the government agency responsible for the harm. This notice must be filed within six months of the date of injury. The government then has the option to accept or reject the claim. If the government rejects all or part of the claim, the injured person may file a lawsuit in court. You are not obligated to follow through with a lawsuit if you provide notice of your claim, even if your claim is rejected. Therefore, it is often wise to provide notice of what happened in order to keep your options open.