We all deal with the government and public employees in many ways each day. Unfortunately, these interactions can sometimes result in harm or damage, for which a citizen may wish to pursue legal action. In many situations, it is possible to sue the government for these types of damages. However, government entities are only liable for damages if there is a statutory basis for the liability. Government entities are also protected by a variety of immunities from lawsuits. Before initiating a claim against a state or local government entity, be sure to review Government Code (Govt) §§ 814-895.8 to learn more about the statutory immunities and liabilities that may apply in your case.
Before you may sue a public entity, you must first file a claim meeting the requirements of the California Tort Claims Act (Govt §§ 810-996.6). This law applies to public entities such as state, county, and local government agencies or departments, as well as to government employees. With very few exceptions, you cannot sue the government for money damages unless you have filed a written claim within the legally specified time period.
Filing a claim gives the agency the opportunity to settle the claim before a lawsuit is filed and to investigate the claim so that it can properly defend itself, or to correct the conditions or practices that led to the claim.
The California Tort Claims Act sets out strict guidelines for filing your claim with a governmental entity (Govt § 911.2). You must file within six months of the incident if your claim is for personal injury, damage to personal property, or wrongful death. All other claims, such as those for breach of contract or damage to real property, must be filed within one year of the incident. If you do not file your claim within this time period, you may be barred from filing a lawsuit.
If your claim is against a local government entity, you can file your claim directly with the entity's governing board or clerk. Many departments and agencies have their own claim form. A list of claim forms for Sacramento–area agencies is available at www.saclaw.org/pages/peace-officer-complaints.aspx. Claims against the State of California are filed with the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. The claim form is available at www.vcgcb.ca.gov/docs/forms/claims/GCClaimForm.pdf.
If the agency does not have a claim form, you may draft a claim including the following information:
- Your name and address
- Address where you'd like to receive notices
- Date, location, and circumstances surrounding your claim
- A general description of your injuries, damages, etc.
- The name of the employee causing the injury, if known
- The dollar amount claimed and how that number was calculated, if asking for less than $10,000.
- If you're asking for more than $10,000, indicate whether your lawsuit will be a limited case (under $25,000 and not asking for non-monetary relief) or an unlimited case (over $25,000, or asking for nonmonetary relief)
The agency has 45 days after receiving your claim to take action (Govt § 912.4). The agency will typically conduct an investigation of your claim. If their findings support your allegations, the agency will attempt to settle with you. If the agency rejects your claim, they will notify you in writing that you can pursue the matter in court. This written notification is often called your "right to sue letter." If the agency takes no action within 45 days, the claim is deemed denied (Govt § 912.4), and you may sue the agency in court. Under Govt § 945.6, you must sue within 6 months from the date of the postmark or personal delivery of your right to sue letter. If the agency does not provide any written notice rejecting your claim, you have two years from the date of injury or damage.
For more information on claims against the government, and many more subjects, visit the Sacramento County Public Law Library, providing free public access to legal information for over 100 years.
By Mary Pinard Johnson, Public Services Librarian