Making an Injury Claim Under the California Tort Claims Act

If your injury was caused by a government entity or employee in California, your claim will follow a unique set of rules.

Updated by , J.D.

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:

  • Any time you think the government or one its employees might be responsible for your injuries in California, you'll need to play by a unique set of procedural rules.
  • Under the California Tort Claims Act, your injury claim against the government must be filed within a strict six-month deadline, and you need to make sure you provide all necessary information (sometimes on the right form).
  • Only after the government has formally denied your injury claim, or enough time has passed, can you take the matter to court in California.

California Law on Injury Claims Against the Government

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.

Limitations and Exceptions in 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. (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:

  • acting in the scope of their employment and/or
  • carrying out a government function.

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.)

Filing a Claim Against the California Government

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).

Filing a Claim Against a City or County In California

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:

  • your name and mailing address
  • the mailing address to which you want notices about the claim mailed
  • date, location, and description of what happened and how you were injured
  • general description of the injury, damage, or loss (including medical costs, lost wages, property damage, and similar losses)
  • name of the government employee(s) that caused the injury (if known)
  • if claimed losses are less than $10,000, the amount claimed and how it was calculated, and
  • if claimed losses are more than $10,000, whether any resulting lawsuit would be a "limited civil case" for jurisdiction purposes (a "limited civil case" is generally a lawsuit seeking less than $25,000 and one where the plaintiff is not seeking an injunction, a determination of title to real property, or enforcement of a Family Code order.)

Time Limits for Filing Claims Under 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?

  • If the government rejects all or part of the claim—usually by sending the claimant a "right to sue" letter—or does not respond within 45 days, the injured person is free to file a lawsuit in court.
  • The lawsuit usually must be filed within six months of receipt of any "right to sue" letter.
  • If there's no response from the government after 45 days (no "right to sue" letter or any other form of contact), the claimant usually has two years to get a lawsuit filed against the government (starting on the date of the injury).

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.

Getting Help After an Injury In California

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.

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