The California Legislature passed the California Tort Claims Act in 2017 in order to regulate how and when individuals can file tort claims against the state government, including any of its entities. Generally, the California Tort Claim Act states that a public entity cannot be held liable for causing a personal injury. Typically referred to as “sovereign immunity,” this rule grants California sweeping protections that ensure the state cannot be held liable for injuries caused by any California entities or employees thereof.
However, the California Tort Claims Act has many exceptions that allow individuals to sue the state under the right circumstances, and it sets clear rules and procedures to govern that process. Essentially, the California Tort Claims Act bars all tort claims, but then it permits specific tort claims. This helps the state regulate the process without infringing on the rights of individuals to seek retribution when they have been wronged. The remainder of this article will discuss the exceptions to the California Tort Claims Act and what you need to know when filing a tort claim against the California government.
When Can California Be Held Responsible for Injuries?
First, it is important to understand that the California Tort Claim Act grants the State of California sweeping protections against tort claims. Tort claims are civil wrongs (as opposed to criminal wrongs) that cause the injured party to suffer some form of harm. This harm can be physical, economic, etc. When someone suffers harm because of a tort, they can sue the person or entity responsible for a “remedy” (namely, money damages).
The California Tort Claims Act grants California broad immunity against liability for civil wrongs, but it has its limits. Generally, a government entity can be held responsible for (1) the negligent acts of its employees and independent contractors, (2) dangerous conditions on government property, and (3) when the public entity failed to meet a duty imposed by law. For example, an individual can sue a California entity for the following claims:
- Vehicular accidents;
- Slip and fall accidents;
- Breach of contract;
- Assault and battery; or
- Burn injuries.
State Liability for the Acts of Its Employees
Under the California Tort Claims Act, a public entity can be held liable for the negligent acts of its employees where they are (1) acting within the scope of their employment or (2) carrying out a government function. The injured person can then sue the specific government entity that employs that employee. For example, if a Los Angeles bus driver runs a red light and crashes into you, then you may be able to sue LA Metro and file a tort claim.
State Liability for the Acts of its Independent Contractors
Similarly, a public entity can be held liable for the negligent acts of its independent contractors where they are (1) acting within the scope of their contract or (2) carrying out a government function for which they had authority. The injured person can then sue the specific government entity that hired that independent contractor and file a tort claim.
State Liability for Failure to Carry Out a Duty Imposed by Law
Finally, a public entity can also be held liable where it failed to carry out a duty imposed by law. For example, if the fire department was alerted to but refused to respond to a fire, the fire department might be held responsible for the damage that the fire caused.
When California Cannot Be Held Responsible for Injuries
It might be helpful to discuss what California cannot be held liable for under the California Tort Claims Act. The California Tort Claims Act bars claims for essentially any reason other than those outlined above. For example, no California entity can be held liable for the following claims:
- Injuries caused by the failure to pass a regulation, ordinance, or law;
- Injuries caused by the failure to enforce a specific regulation, ordinance, or law;
- Injuries caused by the issuance or failure to issue any permit, license, or other governmental authorization;
- Injuries caused by a failure to inspect a property that the government does not own; or
- Injuries caused by misrepresentation.
Limits of Liability Under the California Tort Claims Act
Other than the particular claims for which a California entity may be held liable under the California Tort Claims Act, there is another major limit on the extent of the state’s liability: punitive damages. Although a court may typically award punitive damages based on a showing of recklessness, fraud, intentional harm, etc. in tort claims between individuals, the California Tort Claims Act generally bars punitive damages in personal injury claims against the state government.
Deadline for Filing a Tort Claim
The California Tort Claims Act creates a strict set of guidelines for filing a tort claim against a public entity, including how quickly the injured party must file their claim. If you have suffered a personal injury, damage to personal property, or wrongful death, then you must file your claim within six months of the incident. If you have suffered a breach of contract, damage to real property, or equitable estoppel, then you must file your tort claim within one year of the incident.
Failure to meet the relevant deadline means that the California Tort Claims Act will bar your claim, and you will lose all rights to sue the state over that matter. Sometimes, courts may allow you to file a late claim, but only under uncommon circumstances. For example, courts might allow you to file a late claim if you are acting on the behalf of an original claimant who died or is otherwise incapacitated.
How to File a Tort Claim Against a Public Entity in California
The process for filing a tort claim against a public entity in California can differ depending on whether you need to sue the State of California, a local government, or a public agency. However, the process is generally straightforward. Many public entities provide their own claim form. For example, the State of California’s Office of Risk and Insurance Management will handle any claims for money or damages against the state, and it provides a clear set of procedures and forms to assist with the process.
If the public entity does not have its own claim form, then you can create your own. Your claim should include the following information:
- Your name;
- The street address where you would like to receive correspondence;
- The date, location, and circumstances of your claim;
- A description of the harm suffered;
- The name of the individual who caused the harm (if possible); and
The amount of damages sought and the basis for how you reached that number (such as a $5,000 medical bill) if the total damages are no more than $10,000. If the total damages are higher, then no damages need to be specified, but the claim should indicate whether the lawsuit will be a “limited” or “unlimited” case, which is to say whether you are seeking more than $25,000 and/or nonmonetary relief.
What Happens After Filing a Tort Claim?
After filing your claim with the public entity, the public entity has 45 days to take action. The public entity will likely investigate the tort claim and determine whether it should try to settle. You may accept an offered settlement, or you may decide to pursue your claim in court. If the public entity rejects your claim or fails to respond within 45 days, then you may again decide to pursue your claim in court. Notably, you have six months from the date of your notice to initiate a lawsuit, unless the public entity fails to explicitly reject your claim, in which case you have two years from the date of the incident.
If you choose to pursue your claim in court, you may initiate the proceeding and represent yourself. However, you also have the option to seek proper legal representation. An experienced lawyer can be of great assistance when fighting for justice on your claim.
Contact Pride Legal
If you or a loved one are involved in or expect to be involved in a tort claim, we invite you to contact us at Pride Legal for legal counseling or any further questions. To protect your rights, hire someone who understands them.