Answers To The Most Frequently Asked Questions In Government Liability Cases

1. Can I sue a government entity if the government entity caused an injury to me or death of a family member?

Yes. In most circumstances, a government entity can be sued for the acts of its employees just as if the negligent or intentional misconduct had been committed by a private individual or company.

However, there are significant limitations to a government entity's exposure to lawsuits; therefore, whenever you are considering a case against a government entity, you should quickly consult with an attorney to learn of your rights and limitations.

Of particular concern, is a shortened statute of limitations. Generally, you have two years from the date of the accident to sue a private individual or company, but you only have six months in California to bring a claim against a government employee or government entity. If the claim is not brought within six months, in most cases you will lose your rights (see below).

2. What types of agencies are considered governmental entities?

Perhaps a better word to describe governmental entities is to describe them as "public" entities, because to put it most simply, public entities include almost every operation funded by taxpayers' money. Public entities include public schools, hospitals, police departments, fire departments, bus companies and many other publicly funded institutions.

3. If my child is injured, can I bring a lawsuit on my child's behalf against a public school?

Yes, under some circumstances. The school authorities have a duty to supervise the conduct of children on school grounds. If you can establish that the child's injury was caused by a failure of the public school to adequately supervise children, you may be able to bring a case against the school district.

In a case of sexual harassment or molestation, a plaintiff generally has to prove that the school district was or should have been aware that the harassing student or sexually abusing teacher or employee was a danger to other students and failed to take reasonable steps to protect students.

4. If I am injured as a result of the dangerous condition of public property, can I bring a lawsuit?

Yes, as long as you can prove:

  • That the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of your injury
  • That the injury was caused by the dangerous condition
  • That the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury
  • That the dangerous condition was created by a public employee's wrongful act or omission
  • That the public entity had notice of the condition in time to take protective measures and failed to take those measures

Dangerous condition of public property generally falls into two classes:

  1. Cases in which a person trips, falls or somehow injures himself on a sidewalk, crosswalk or other public property
  2. Cases in which dangerous roadways contribute to accidents

5. I have heard that public entities have immunity from lawsuits. What does that mean?

When evaluating public entity liability, immunity means that by operation of the law a public entity cannot be held responsible for certain negligent or wrongful acts even if its wrongful conduct clearly caused the plaintiff an injury. There are hundreds of immunities that may or may not apply in your case. Therefore, it is always important to consult with a lawyer early in the case to make sure that there are no immunities that bar your particular case.

6. Can I sue the police and correctional officers if they cause me an injury?

Rarely. Police and correctional officers are immune from liability in most circumstances as long as they are acting within the course and scope of their employment. There are a number of exceptions to this general immunity, including cases in which a police officer or correctional officer violates a person's civil rights and cases in which a correctional officer or police officer injures someone in a car accident, although it is virtually impossible to sue a public entity if the plaintiff's injury stems from a high speed chase situation or if the vehicle owned by the public entity is on an emergency mission.

7. What if I am injured by an operator of a public entity vehicle, such as a bus, can I sue?

Yes. Other than police officers in chase situations (and emergency vehicles on emergency missions), the operator of any public entity vehicle, including a bus, owes the same duty of care as a private individual to pedestrians and occupants of other vehicles.

Further, since a bus is considered a "common carrier," the public entity owes the bus passengers the highest duty of care recognized under the law which makes cases involving injuries to passengers on a bus easier to win against the bus company than cases against other motorists.

8. Can I bring a case against the federal government?

Yes. Cases against the federal government are controlled by the Federal Tort Claims Act. A federal tort claim must be brought within two years of the date of the accident.

The liability of the federal government is the same as that imposed upon a private individual under state law, with a few exceptions.

There is no right to a jury trial in a case against the federal government. It can only be decided by a judge or magistrate.

Further, plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages against the federal government.

9. What is the statute of limitations in a case against a government entity in California?

Although there are some exceptions, claims against governmental agencies must be brought within six months from the date of the incident. This strict claim requirement has destroyed the right of thousands of severely injured individuals who assumed they had one or two years to bring their case against the government entity.

Thus, it is important in any case in which a government entity is a potential defendant to seek consultation with an attorney shortly after the incident.

One of the reasons it is generally advisable to consult with an attorney in all cases quickly after an incident is because you may not realize that there is a potential claim against a government entity, or you may not realize that the person you believe injured you was a public employee, or that you were injured at a public facility.

For instance, in a motor vehicle accident case in which you are seriously injured, you may believe that your only claim is against the driver who ran a stop sign and hit you. However, the driver may have only limited insurance and assets, and an investigation may reveal that there was inadequate lighting in the area of the stop sign or that it was hidden by overgrown tree branches. In that situation, you may also have a case against the public entity. However, if you wait longer than six months it will be too late.

Another example may be a medical malpractice case against a hospital in which the hospital does not bear the name of the public entity. Therefore, you may not realize that it is a public hospital. This is no excuse under the law, and your claim may still be barred if it is not brought within six months.

There are exceptions to the six-month claims rule. Therefore, even if you have waited more than six months after an accident to seek the advice of an attorney, you should still arrange for a consultation because you may fall within one of the exceptions.

10. What damages am I allowed to recover in a case against a public entity?

You are entitled to recover damages against a public entity in the same manner as you would be allowed to recover damages against a private company, with two exceptions. You are not entitled to a recovery of punitive damages against the public entity itself, although a public employee can be held responsible for punitive damages (although a public employee will rarely have the resources to pay a significant punitive damage claim). Further, the other significant difference is that a government entity can elect to pay judgments that exceed $500,000 by making partial payments over a 10-year period.

Plaintiff is entitled to recover damages for past and future medical expenses, past and future wage loss, past and future pain and suffering, and if it is deemed that conduct is bad enough, punitive damages (i.e., punishment damages against the defendant).

If the plaintiff dies, his or her survivors are entitled to recover full compensation for their economic losses that result from the plaintiff's death as well as emotional distress damages which stem from the loss of society care and comfort of the decedent. If the survivors can prove that the plaintiff lived for a period of time between the negligent act and death, they can also bring an action for punitive damages.

11. Do I need to retain an attorney in cases against a public entity?

In all but the most minor injury cases, yes. Government entities will normally fight claims hard because they see themselves as easy targets for lawsuits and want to send a message to the public and attorneys that they will not pay out on anything other than valid claims.

12. Will my case settle out of court?

Probably. A great majority of cases against public entities eventually settle — but usually not without a fight.

Most legal questions require complex answers. The answers provided here may not be complete or fully accurate but attempt to provide consumers with abbreviated answers. For more detailed answers to these questions, a consumer should check out other articles in this section of this website, research other legal articles and texts on the subject matter or consult with an attorney.