Most personal injury claims are cut and dry. Someone injures you, the liable party is identified, and your personal injury attorney files a claim against them, usually with the at-fault party’s insurer. But what happens when the liable party is the state of California, either a governmental agency or an employee of the state acting on its behalf? For example, you are involved in an accident where the at-fault driver was driving a state-owned vehicle, or you fall down the stairs in a government-owned building due to frayed carpeting on the steps?
Cases like these fall under the umbrella of the California Tort Claims Act, or CTCA. This law was originally designed to protect the state from liability, much like the sovereign immunity concept that emerged centuries ago in England. Sovereign immunity was used to protect the King of England from being privy to lawsuits arising from any harm that his actions caused to his subjects. Today, the CTCA lays out a very strict claim procedure that allows for personal injury claimants to seek damages in very specific circumstances.
Under the CTCA, a government agency or a government entity is responsible for any of its employees’ negligent acts, provided that the negligent person was acting in the scope of his or her employment and/or carrying out a function for the government. In the same vein, public entities may be sued if they fail to carry out their duties as required by law. For example, if the fire department doesn’t respond to a fire, then someone who is injured by the fire could file a claim for damages. Damages in these cases usually result from car or bus accidents, burn injuries, medical negligence, slip and falls, and sports injuries at public schools. It is not unusual to see an intentional tort, such as a battery or an assault, make its way into court with a state agency as the defendant.
Under the CTCA, state and local governments can be held liable in personal injury claims in specific situations. For example, liability may arise as the result of negligent acts by employees or independent contractors or for premises liability as a result of dangerous conditions occurring on property owned by the government.
The first step in filing a claim against the government under the CTCA is to file a written notice of claim with the entity alleged to have caused the harm. Some municipalities have forms for this; others just require a written statement. This written notice must be filed timely; injured parties have just six months following the date of the injury to provide notice of the claim. Once filed, the government will then accept the claim or reject it. If the claim is rejected, then the person may then proceed to file a lawsuit in court.