You Snooze, You Lose – Understanding the Government Tort Claims Act

How often do people get injured due to the negligence of the government or some other public entity?  All too often, right?  In an attempt to limit the number of lawsuits filed against public agencies and/or entities, the legislature enacted what is now known as the Government Tort Claims Act (“Act”).  The California Government Code provides the following:

No suit for money or damages may be brought against a public entity on a cause of action for which a claim is required to be presented…until a written claim therefore has been presented to the public entity and has been acted upon.

(Gov. Code, § 945.4.)

What Does it Mean?

The Act essentially creates a more stringent statute of limitations than what would otherwise apply.  In almost all encounters between individuals or businesses, the statute of limitations for tortious conduct is at least one (1) year from its occurrence. And in many cases, it is longer. Furthermore, there is no “potential claim notice” requirement. Rather, the statute of limitation is tied solely to bringing the claim to court in the form of a lawsuit.
However, under the Act, the alleged tortfeasor is the government. And instead of operating under the normal rules of litigation and statutes of limitation, it has an additional requirement. This is the claim presentation requirement.
Specifically, within six (6) months from the date the injury occurred or the injury was discovered, a party is required to notify the government entity/agency of the injury and potential claim.  Failing to do so within the six (6) month period can, and likely will, act as a bar to a claimant’s recovery for what would have otherwise been a valid claim, so it is imperative that you provide the requisite notice immediately, even if the claim is never pursued thereafter.

What Meets the Notification Requirement?

You may be asking yourself…well “what information am I required to provide to properly protect my rights?”  The Act requires that the claimant sets forth:

  1. The names and addresses of the claimant and the person to whom notices are to be sent;
  1. A statement of the date, place, and other circumstances of the occurrence or transaction;
  1. A description of the indebtedness, obligation, injury, damage, or loss incurred as far as they are known when the claim is presented;
  1. The name of the public employee who caused the injury, if known; and
  1. The amount claimed, if less than $10,000, or whether the claim is to be a limited or unlimited civil case if more than $10,000.

The purpose of the claim is to present sufficient detail “to reasonably enable the public entity to make an adequate investigation of the merits of the claim and to settle it without the expense of a lawsuit.” (Blair v. Superior Court (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 221, 225.)
The state of California (i.e. as of July 1, 2016, the Government Claims Program is found within the Department of General Services) and many municipal levels of government (e.g. see City of Sacramento, County of Sacramento) have forms that you can complete to provide the requested information. Each level of government involved in the claim requires a separate notification. Thus, a matter involving city, county, and state authorities would have multiple claim forms submitted–one to each level of government.

Do not let the Seeming Simplicity Deceive You

While each requested category seems pretty straight forward, many claimants trip-up when it comes to number three (3).  The third category requests an explanation of how the injury occurred as well as the legal theory relied upon for holding the public entity/agency liable.  The issue is, however, some courts have ruled that each and every theory of liability needs to be presented in the notice as well as the factual allegations related to that particular theory of liability.  Failing to do so could limit the claimant’s ability to seek relief under any other legal theory not included in the initial notice.
Public entities/agencies are all to eager to attempt to tie claimants to the four corners of the claim form, so, when in doubt, consult an attorney.