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 against them. But what if a government entity or one of its employees caused your injury? For example, let's say a city bus hit your car, or you tripped and fell on a broken staircase at the DMV:
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."
For hundreds of years, the legal concept known as "sovereign immunity" has insulated government agencies and their employees from liability for injury for hundreds of years.
In the U.S., states have adopted the sovereign immunity rule to limit their liability (as in California's statutory excerpt quoted above), but have then have carved out exceptions through which an injured person can seek compensation for injuries and other losses caused by the government.
The result is that a claimant must usually follow a strictly-enforced procedure—as laid out in a law like the CTCA—before they can get compensation for their government-caused injuries.
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. (Learn more about "damages" in injury cases.)
As a rule, a government agency or entity is responsible for the negligent acts of its employees, as long as, at the time of the accident or incident giving rise to the claim, the negligent person was:
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 employees versus independent contractors under California law.)
If you're alleging that the state government or one of its employees is responsible for your injury, you can start by filing a claim with the California Department of General Services Office of Risk and Insurance Management. Check their site for details on the claim filing process, for a list of the types of claims that must be filed elsewhere (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 (or must) use to streamline the process. See, for instance:
Elsewhere, call the relevant city or county government and ask them for information on filing an injury claim, including whether the claim needs to be made on a specific form. If there is no claim form to submit or you run into a dead end, you'll probably need to draft your own "notice of claim" in letter form. Here's what to include, according to the procedure set out in the CTCA:
Before a lawsuit can be filed in California 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. What happens next?
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.
Making an injury claim under the California Tort Claims Act can be a complicated endeavor, especially if you're unsure about which government entity might be responsible for your injury, and how to comply with the procedural guidelines.
For 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. You can also connect with a California injury lawyer right on this page.