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Can a municipality be sued for injury or death?

The city of Oakland faces wrongful death lawsuit over decayed tree that led to teen's death

Public bodies and public employees do not have blanket immunity from lawsuits. Under California tort law, it is sometimes possible to hold local government entities liable for negligence or intentional acts.

A family is suing the city of Oakland for the wrongful death of their teenage son. Jack Lewis died in December 2015 from head trauma when a tree branch he was climbing in a city park broke and landed on him. Had he merely fallen from the tree, there might be no case. The lawsuit contends the city is legally responsible because it knew the tree was dangerously decayed and failed to act.

Are you thinking about suing a public entity? The procedures are specific and the deadline is quick. Get legal counsel right away from a law firm with experience in such cases.

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Yes, you can sue a government entity

The California Tort Claims Act (Govt. Code Div. 3.6) sets out specific criteria for suing a city, county, school district or other local government body. A public entity may be liable for injury resulting from acts or omission of a public employee within the scope of his or her employment.

In the Oakland wrongful death case, the lawsuit contends that city workers had inspected and performed maintenance on the tree in question. In addition to removing dead limbs from the top of the tree, they had marked a blue dot on the tree indicating that it was dead or dying and should be removed. Oakland's own policy is that trees posing a safety hazard be cut down and removed within 24 hours. The lawsuit contends that the city failed to heed its policy or warn the public.

Before any action was taken, 16-year-old Jack Lewis climbed the tree to join a group of friends to watch the sunset. The branch was approximately 12 inches in diameter – plenty thick for a healthy tree limb to support several people. But evidence shows the branch was decaying, sending the teens tumbling when it split and tragically fracturing Jack's skull.

Time is very critical when suing a public entity

Per California statute, you must notify the governmental body within six months of the injury or death of your intent to file a claim. Failure to give notice before the deadline may nullify your right to pursue damages. At a minimum it creates a significant legal hurdle to get an exception from the court. Do not wait until the last minute.

There is more to filing a claim than simply saying "I want to sue." An experienced personal injury lawyer can gauge the merits of your case, the specific legal basis for your claim, the likelihood of winning compensation and all parties who may be liable.

Other examples of when a public agency could be liable

Every case is unique and dependent upon the facts. In general, the negligence (act or omission) must relate to the job duties of a public employee. For example, you might have a case against the city, county or school for:

  • Dangerous condition of public property causing a slip-and-fall
  • Road defect or construction hazard contributing to a car accident
  • Mugging or sexual assault resulting from inadequate security
  • Medical malpractice at a public health clinic
  • Sexual molestation by a teacher or coach
  • Injuries involving a public transit bus or train

Let an attorney determine where you stand. Personal injury firms typically provide free consultations and represent plaintiffs on contingency – no attorney fees unless they win compensation.

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