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California Sovereign Immunity From Tort Liability

The state of California provides a direct legal path to pursue damages from a government entity after a personal injury or other tort liability. In some cases, however, the government entity may be granted immunity by a statute or constitutional provision. 

The California Tort Claims Act determines whether or not the government is immune to action and therefore oversees when the state can be sued. If a California resident hopes to bring charges against the state, they must adhere to a variety of vague and complicated procedures that often prevent a case from moving forward. 

Suing a Public Entity in California

The primary law for suing the government is the California Tort Claims Act (CTCA) of 1963. Prior to its passing, most government entities were exempt from liability in personal injury cases. Now there are multiple ways that public entities can be held responsible for their actions. An experienced Chain | Cohn | Clark lawyer can help explain how the CTCA affects tort law in California. 

Sovereign Immunity in California

For centuries there has been a general rule in U.S. and English law that absolves public entities of liability. Also known as the rule of sovereign immunity, it is meant to prevent residents from suing leaders or rulers even if the decisions of said leaders negatively affected the resident(s). 

Sovereign immunity basically means that a public entity is not liable for any injuries caused by the public entity or its employees as they are fulfilling their duty. 

The California Tort Claims Act lists exceptions to sovereign immunity in which the government can be held liable for the harm that they cause. This gives people the option to pursue damages in cases of gross negligence or corruption. 

However, even if a California resident does have good cause to pursue damages, they still face the difficult process of navigating the CTCA. If you are attempting to sue a government entity, you will want to hire an experienced tort lawyer who understands the unique procedures set by the CTCA. 

Acts of Public Employees 

Let’s get more specific about the situations in which a public employee can be held accountable. California public employees are granted sovereign immunity for a personal injury if the accident happens in the course of their employment. The “course of employment” refers to all activities an employee may reasonably undertake when fulfilling their duties. If harm is caused as the result of a public employee’s work responsibilities, the responsible entity will be immune from legal action. 

However, if there is any evidence of fraud or corruption, a public entity will be held responsible for the acts of their employee. This includes any act or omission of information that proximately caused the victim’s injury and should have led to some form of remedial action. As you can see, these restrictions tend to be vague and sometimes subjective. This can make pursuing damages from a public or state organization very challenging. 

California Tort Laws Governing Liability

While the California Tort Claims Act may make it more accessible to pursue damages from a public entity, it is still a long and complicated process requiring significant attention to detail and procedural protocols. Similar to private companies, the government has no desire to pay you for their mistakes. They will likely try to mitigate any costs they can. A good attorney will help you hold a government entity accountable with the following strategies. 

Proof of Mandatory Duty

When attempting to establish government liability, a plaintiff can use the argument of mandatory duty. Mandatory duties are expectations placed upon public entities by constitutional provisions, ordinances, statutes, or regulations. These outline how a public entity is supposed to act or what they owe to the public. 

To secure damages from a public entity on the grounds of mandatory duty, the plaintiff must prove all three of the following:

  1. There is an existing statute that imposes a mandatory duty on a public entity;
  2. That statute was imposed to prevent or protect against the type of risk suffered by the plaintiff; and
  3. The breach of that mandatory duty by the public entity was a proximate—if not direct—cause of the plaintiff’s injury. 

If these conditions have been met, the state of California will be considered negligent in causing harm to the plaintiff. While the process may seem simple enough, finding statutes, proving mandatory duty, and connecting the events is no small task. 

Reaching out to a law firm with experience in government liability law will significantly increase your chances of recovering compensation.

Dangerous Condition of Public Property Lawsuit

California law is used to protect the government from lawsuits for any injuries that occur due to defects of public property. Any building or land owned or controlled by a public entity was off limits for legal action. 

The passage of the California Tort Claims Act increased the scope of government liability by holding public entities accountable when the following conditions are all met:

  • An individual is injured on property that is owned or controlled by a public entity;
  • That injury was caused by a dangerous condition on the property;
  • The dangerous condition posed a reasonably foreseeable risk for the sustained injury;
  • Either the dangerous condition is a direct result of omission of information or negligent or wrongful acts of a public employee in the scope of their employment, or the public entity was notified of the dangerous condition a sufficient amount of time prior to the injury to the point where a reasonable measure should have been taken to prevent said injuries; and
  • The dangerous condition ended up being a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. 

The two ways a plaintiff can prove that the public entity had prior knowledge of a dangerous condition are through actual and constructive notice. 

Actual notice refers to the actual knowledge of an existing problem. This means the public was clearly aware of the issue and should have known that it was dangerous. 

Constructive notice refers to the idea that the dangerous condition was obvious and existed for so long that the public entity should have discovered it when exercising due care. In either case, it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to show that the public entity should have addressed the dangerous condition. 

Filing a Claim Under the California Tort Claims Act

If you are trying to sue a state employee or public entity for your injury under the California government claims act, you will need to file a claim with the California Department of General Services’ Office of Risk and Insurance Management. This link will show you the required process for filing a claim against a government entity and provide a list of claims that must be filed with a state agency directly. Some claims must also be sent to a specific address. 

Some cities and counties have online claim portals with forms that you can use to speed up the claim process. LA, San Diego, and San Jose all have claim assistance on their websites. 

If there is no dedicated claim form, you may need to draft your own “notice of claim” letter to the city or public entity. The following information should be included in a notice of claim letter:

  • Name
  • Mailing address
  • Mailing address of the recipient
  • Date, location, and description of injury/accident
  • General description of all damages and expenses (medical costs, injuries, lost wages, etc.)
  • Name of government employee(s) responsible for injury (if known)
  • Amount of claimed losses and how they were calculated if below $10,000
  • Whether or not a claim for more than $10,000 will be a “limited civil case” or not 

A limited civil case is a lawsuit that seeks less than $25,000 and does not try to obtain a determination of title to property, an injunction, or an enforcement of a California Family Code order. 

California Tort Law Time Limitations

One of the most difficult parts of filing a lawsuit against the government in California is the strict deadlines. Before a lawsuit can be brought to court, a tort claim must be filed within six months of the injury date. This is only a fraction of the time available when filing a personal injury claim.

After the claim is filed, the government will then have 45 days to accept or reject it. If the government accepts the claim, they will pay the fine and no further action will be needed. If all or part of the claim is rejected, or the state does not respond within 45 days, you can move forward with a lawsuit in court. The government may also try to negotiate a lower settlement similar to a private party.

Regardless of what happens with your claim, you are not required to file a lawsuit. You should provide a notice of the state’s decision to keep your options open. 

Chain | Cohn | Clark California Lawyers

Whether you are writing a notice of claim letter or filing a full-on lawsuit, you should contact a lawyer if you are attempting to recover benefits from a state or public entity. Here at Chain | Cohn | Clark, we represent California residents in a wide range of injury cases. Government liability and tort law are topics we are very familiar with. 

Let us do the heavy lifting. We offer free case evaluations and unbridled motivation, a combination that will help you recover the maximum compensation you deserve. 

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