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. 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.
Public entities in California may also be held liable for injuries that are caused by the negligence of their independent contractors.
Learn more about damages in an injury case.
If you're alleging that a state employee is responsible for your injury, file a claim with the California Department of General Services's Office of Risk and Insurance Management. Check their site for details on the claim filing process, and for a list of the types of claims that must be filed directly with a state agency, or sent to a specific mailing address (such as claims against Caltrans or the California State University system).
If your claim is against a city or county, 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.
If there is no claim form to submit, you'll probably need to draft your own "notice of claim" in letter form. Here's what to include:
Before a lawsuit can be filed in court, the injured person must file a claim with the government agency within six months of the date of injury. The government then has the option to accept or reject the claim, usually within 45 days. If the government rejects all or part of the claim, or does not respond within 45 days, the injured person is free to file a lawsuit in court. Keep in mind that the government may also attempt to negotiate a settlement of the injury claim, just as a private party or insurance company might when faced with a liability claim or lawsuit.
You are not obligated to follow through with a lawsuit if you file a claim, even if your claim is rejected. So it is often wise to provide notice of what happened in order to keep your options open.
If you have questions about making a claim under the California Tort Claims Act, or if you'd like advice tailored to your situation, it might make sense to talk to an experienced lawyer. Learn how to find the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.