Filing Your Lawsuit in Federal Court

(Page 2 of 2 of Suing the Government for Negligence: The Federal Tort Claims Act )

You must file your lawsuit in the United States District Court (the formal name for federal court) either where you live or where your claim arose. For example, if your claim involves a slip and fall accident at a post office, you have the option of filing your lawsuit in the federal court where you live or where the post office is located. However, when suing the federal government for negligence, you cannot file your lawsuit in state court.

You cannot sue the federal government for more money than you asked for in your administrative claim unless you present newly discovered evidence that adds to the value of your injuries or property loss. Also, you cannot ask for punitive damages.

Once you have filed your lawsuit in federal court, the process becomes similar to any other lawsuit, including the opportunity to try and negotiate a settlement of your claim with the lawyer representing the government.

Settling Your FTCA Claim

You generally have two opportunities to settle your claim with the federal government. First, during the administrative claim process, you may be able to agree on an out-of-court settlement with the government attorney assigned to your case. Generally, this attorney will work for the federal agency that you have sued.

Second, once you file a lawsuit in federal court, it is typically assigned to a new team of attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice, who may take a different view of your case and be more willing to settle with you.

Should You Represent Yourself or Get an Attorney?

As a general matter, federal courts go to considerable lengths to be fair to unrepresented plaintiffs and expect the lawyers employed by federal agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice to do the same. Nevertheless, the FTCA is a highly complex law, and unrepresented plaintiffs are unlikely to understand all of the arcane legal defenses and exceptions involved in their case. And, as with any personal injury case, if your damages are substantial, it is usually advisable to hire an attorney. (To learn more about finding an attorney, see Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer or visit Nolo's Lawyer Directory .)

The one instance in which it may make more sense to represent yourself is where the damages involved in your case are relatively small, rendering an attorney unaffordable. Keep in mind, however, that you may need a lawyer to help determine the kinds of injury damages to which you may be entitled -- and many lawyers do not charge for an initial consultation, during which they could tell you the range of damages involved in your case.

If you choose to represent yourself, you may be able to get some assistance from the Pro Se Office at the courthouse where you file your claim, which is there to help plaintiffs who are not represented by an attorney. (To learn more about navigating the court system on your own, see Nolo's Representing Yourself in Court topic.)

Also, to learn more about special rules for personal injury claims against the government, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).

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