Government Claims Act – Limited State Immunity

In Muskopf v. Corning Hosp. Dist. (1961) 55 Cal.2d 211, the California Supreme Court abolished governmental immunity. Realizing the potential liability – to be taken from their own pockets – the legislature enacted the comprehensive Government Claims Act almost immediately thereafter. This overturned Muskopf and eliminated all common law or judicially devised forms of governmental liability.
Below, please find a brief description of the act and the presentation of claims requirement. Both must be understood by employees, contractors, and even victims of state action before attempting to assert a claim against the State of California.

Background on the Government Claims Act

Government Code § 815, the cornerstone of the Act, declares that “except as otherwise provided by statute [a] public entity is not liable for an injury, whether such injury arises out of an act or omission of the public entity or a public employee or any other person.” Under the Act, all governmental liability is statutory, except as required by the state and federal constitutions. (Nestle v. City of Santa Monica (1972) 6 Cal.3d 920, 932.) The Act applies to all public entities and their employees. In Caldwell v. Montoya (1995) 10 Cal.4th 972, 980, the California Supreme Court concisely described the structure of the Act as establishing the following basic rules:

    • Public entities are immune from liability except as provided by statute (Gov. Code § 815(a).)
    • Public employees are liable for their torts except as otherwise provided by statute (Gov. Code § 820(a).)
    • Public entities are vicariously liable for the torts of their employees (Gov. Code § 815.2(a).)
    • Public entities are immune when their employees are immune, except as otherwise provided by statute (Gov. Code § 815.2(b).)

The 1963 legislation also added several statutory provisions establishing specific forms of public entity liability: independent contractors; breach of a mandatory duty imposed pursuant to enactment; liability for dangerous condition of public property; etc.). In addition, the it provided for:

    • Numerous types of immunities that apply to either the public entity, the public employee, or both
    • Defense and indemnification of public employees
    • Tort liability under agreements among public entities

Claims Presentation Requirement

The Government Claims Act also includes claim presentation requirements (Gov. Code §§ 900-935.7.) These unique procedural requirements for claim presentation are prerequisites to litigation against a public entity or employee based not only on tort liability, but any state law claim for “money or damages” including breach of contract claims.
Before a complaint “for money or damages” against a public entity or employee can be filed with the court, a claim must be first presented to the entity in accordance with the Act and then rejected by the entity. Claims for injury to person, property, or crops must be presented within 6 months of the accrual of the cause of action. Claims for all other injuries must be presented within 1 year of the accrual of the cause of action.
The Act requires the public entity either to reject a timely claim within 45 days or return it as late within the same period. The Act contains its own statutes of limitations for filing of the complaint. The plaintiff must file suit within 6 months after the date the public entity serves the notice of rejection of the claim. (Gov. Code § 945.6(a)(1).) However, if the public entity fails to serve a notice of rejection, the action may be filed in court within 2 years from the accrual of the cause of action.
The Act provides a mechanism permitting a claimant to apply to the public entity for leave to present a late claim, within a reasonable time not to exceed 1 year after accrual of the cause of action. (See Gov. Code § 911.4.) If the application for leave is denied, either by notice or inaction, the claimant may then petition the court for an order for relief from the claims presentation requirements. (See Gov. Code § 946.6.)
The petition must be filed with the court within 6 months after the application is denied. Plaintiff must then file suit within 30 days of any order granting relief. Further information regarding the Government Claims Act and its potential application to your matter can be obtained by visiting the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.