What If You Slip and Fall on Government Property?

To succeed with a slip-and-fall injury claim against the government, you'll have to prove negligence and comply with strict procedural rules.

Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

If you slip and fall on government property, can you hold the government responsible for your injuries and other losses? To answer that question you'll start the same way you would with any slip-and-fall accident—by determining if your accident was caused by the negligence of the people responsible for maintaining the property.

But when you've been injured because of the negligence of a government (at the local, state, or federal level), your claim will be more complicated than it would be when a private party is at fault. Governments have passed laws creating strict procedural requirements for filing injury claims, and limiting how much compensation injured people can receive. It's crucial to understand these rules if you're considering a slip-and-fall claim against the government.

You Need to Be Able to Prove That the Government Is Legally Responsible for Your Accident

We'll discuss the important differences below, but in many ways a slip-and-fall lawsuit against the government works the same way as any other premises liability case. Whether you're injured on property owned by the government, a business, or an individual, you'll have to show that your accident was the result of the property owner's negligence (which is basically just the legal term for "carelessness").

How Does Negligence Work in a Slip-and-Fall Case?

In any slip-and-fall case, a plaintiff has to show:

  • that the property owner (or the owner's employees) had a responsibility to keep the property safe
  • that they failed to fulfil that responsibility, and
  • that this failure caused the plaintiff's injuries.

This means that the government isn't automatically liable just because you fell on government property. There had to have been some unsafe condition or other problem that made the property unsafe under the circumstances. And in order to prove that the governmental entity was negligent, you must prove that it knew or should reasonably have known of the unsafe condition, and failed to take sensible steps to fix the problem.

So, let's say that a visitor spills water in the lobby of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and you slip on it two minutes later. In that situation it wouldn't be reasonable to expect the DMV to have known about and addressed the potential danger that quickly. But if the spill happened an hour earlier, and several customers had already complained about the slippery floor, you could argue that the DMV knew about the problem and failed in its duty to keep their property safe.

Keep in mind, too, that a defendant's own behavior and decisions play a role in determining the government's responsibility for a slip-and-fall accident. For example, if someone fell after ignoring a "Caution: Wet Floor" sign, it would be difficult for them to argue that the DMV didn't do enough to keep its visitors safe.

What Should You Do to Protect Your Legal Rights After a Slip-and-Fall on Government Property?

Of course, the first thing to focus on after any accident is your health and safety.

As soon as you're able, you should also make sure to start collecting the information and evidence you'll need if you want to demonstrate that the government (or a specific government agency) is liable for your injurie. For example, you should:

  • take pictures of the accident scene, your clothes, and any visible injuries you might have received
  • speak with and get contact information for anyone who saw the accident or might know something about the dangerous conditions that led to your fall, and
  • preserve all of your medical bills and other records of your medical treatment.

It cannot be emphasized enough that a picture is worth a thousand words in a slip-and-fall case. Broken sidewalks or stairs can be fixed; floors can be dried and cleared of debris; ice can melt or be cleared away. It can be difficult or impossible to win a case that hinges on the negligence of a property owner if you can't capture the scene of your accident as it was at the time of your fall.

There Are Strict Requirements for Suing the Government

If you're considering a slip-and-fall lawsuit against the government, it's crucial that you follow the correct process. The specific rules will vary depending on where you fell:

  • A law called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) covers any legal claim arising from an accident on the federal government's property.
  • Each state has its own version of a "tort claims act," covering legal claims arising from accidents on state property.
  • Each state also has laws covering if, when, and how an accident victim can file a lawsuit against local governments in that state.

Remember That You Can't Go Straight to Court

One of the common features of the FTCA and similar state-level laws is that they require people who've been injured to go file a so-called administrative claim before filing a lawsuit. With an administrative claim, you follow a process for seeking compensation directly from the agency responsible for your injuries. You're only allowed to take your case to court once you get a final decision from the agency. In legal and bureaucratic terms, this is called "exhausting your administrative remedies."

In some states, including Arkansas and Kentucky, your slip-and-fall case against the state wouldn't ever be heard in a regular court. These states have a broad interpretation of the government's immunity from lawsuits. Instead of suing, a person who's suffered injuries because of government conduct submits their case to a "board of claims" or "claims commission" that examines the evidence and decides what compensation (if any) to pay.

You Must Comply With Strict Notice Requirements and Time Limits

Even if you have a strong case, you could lose your chance to receive compensation if you don't follow the correct procedure for submitting your claim. At minimum, you should make sure that you:

  • send your administrative claim to the correct government agency and the correct address
  • include all the information required by the agency, and
  • meet the deadlines for filing your claim and (if necessary) your lawsuit.

You may be able to find the necessary forms and instructions just by searching for them online. But if you have questions about the process you may want to consider asking an attorney for advice or assistance.

You Might Not Receive Full Compensation for Your Injuries

Even if you're able to file a lawsuit against a government agency, and you end up winning, there may be a statutory limit on the amount of damages you can recover. For example:

  • The FTCA bars plaintiffs from collecting punitive damages from federal government agencies.
  • Pennsylvania law places a $250,000 limit on the amount of compensation a person can receive from the government.
  • Nevada law places a cap of $100,000 on damages in lawsuits against the state, and also bars the state from having to pay punitive damages.

Learn More About Pursuing a Slip-and-Fall Case Against the Government

If you think you may have a slip-and-fall claim against your municipal or state government, you can read about your state's rules for filing a lawsuit against the government. Any lawsuit against the government will require you to navigate laws and procedures that are even more complicated than the ones that apply to normal court cases. So it will probably be helpful to consult with a local attorney who has experience handling personal injury cases against government defendants. A good attorney can help you understand your options and decide the best way to proceed.

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