All About the California Tort Claims Act

If a government agency, employee, or the government itself is responsible for your injuries, there are very specific requirements you must follow in order to file a personal injury lawsuit against the government. Under the California Tort Claims Act, you are required to give notice to the government within a set period of time or you lose your opportunity to seek money damages from the party that injured you.

In most California Tort Claim Act claims, proper notice of a claim must be filed within six months of the injury or accident.

The California Tort Claims Act limits the types of accidents and injuries for which the State of California can be liable. This limitation of liability, called "sovereign immunity" in the common law, generally prevents individuals from suing the government or a government agency for personal injury.

However, the Act carves out certain exceptions, allowing the government to be held liable in those limited circumstances. These exclusions include for premises liability where the government had notice of the dangerous condition, or where the government is vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee.

If you are successful in your claim against the government, you can be awarded financial compensation for your injuries. Compensatory damages in a personal injury lawsuit can include:

Below, our California personal injury attorneys address frequently asked questions about lawsuits filed under the California Tort Claims Act and the injuries you may have suffered:

1. What is the California Tort Claims Act?

The California Tort Claims Act (CTCA) is a law written by the California Legislature with the intent to protect the state government from liability in certain personal injury cases. The law states that, generally, "a public entity is not liable for an injury" caused by that public entity or any of its employees. This is known as "sovereign immunity."

However, the law also carves out certain limited exceptions which allow the State of California to face liability. For those limited exceptions, a very strict claim procedure is in place which must be strictly followed for an injury victim to recover damages.

1.1 What is sovereign immunity?

Sovereign immunity is a legal concept created centuries ago in England, which protected the King from any lawsuit which caused damages to others. Over the many years since that time, the concept has been adopted by every state in various forms to protect public entities from lawsuits for injuries caused by them or their employees.1

In most states, the sovereign immunity statutes carve out specific exceptions to the law by which a plaintiff can still sue the government or another public entity. These exceptions are usually governed by a strict procedure which must be followed.

1.2 What claims are covered under the California Tort Claims Act?

Under the California Tort Claims Act, all claims for civil liability or "money damages" are covered, meaning that cases that are covered may include:

Lawsuits against teachers and school districts in California generally proceed by way of the CTCA. 

1.3 What types of claims are not permitted under the California Tort Claims Act?

The Act generally does not allow claims for almost any other reason, except those above. These include:

  • Injuries caused by the failure to pass a regulation, ordinance, or law;
  • Injuries caused by the California National Guard;
  • Injuries caused by failure to enforce a specific law;
  • An injury caused by an issuance or failure to issue any permit, license, certificate, or other governmental authorization;
  • Any injury caused by a failure to inspect any property which the government itself does not own;
  • Injuries caused by any misrepresentation; or
  • Damages as a result of reporting identifying information of convicted drug offenders to local schools.

Moreover, punitive damages are generally not allowed in a claim against the government. These types of damages are rarely awarded in a personal injury claim, and may require a showing of recklessness, fraud, or intentional harm. However, these types of damages are specifically excluded from liability under the law.

Additionally, any claim which is not "for money or damages" cannot be filed under the California Tort Claims Act.

Example: Janet is a contractor who has agreed to build a shed for a customer by the end of next week. She goes through the paperwork for the necessary building permit and submits it but the permit is denied. Janet is unable to fulfill her contract, and is sued as a result. She cannot sue the government under the CTCA for denying her permit, even though that denial was the ultimate cause of her damages.

2. Who can be held responsible for my injuries under the California Tort Claims Act?

Under the Act, the government can be held legally responsible for personal injury damages in certain situations. These situations include:

  • The negligent acts of employees,
  • The negligent acts of independent contractors,
  • Premises liability for dangerous conditions on government property, and
  • When damages are caused by the public entities failure to carry out a duty imposed by law.

The entity responsible in a California Tort Claims Act claim is generally the government entity or agency responsible for the employee, property, or carrying out a duty. The CTCA applies to state, county, and local government agencies and departments, including city or municipality agencies.

2.1 When can the government be liable for acts of its employees?

A government entity or agency is responsible for any negligent acts committed by its employees, if:

  • The employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment; or
  • The employee was carrying out some government function.2

If a government employee is the cause of a person's personal injury damages, the victim should file a claim under the California Tort Claims Act against the agency or entity that employs that negligent employee. The Act does not provide for a lawsuit against the employee personally but generally only against the employer.

2.2 When can the government be liable for the acts of independent contractors?

The government may be held responsible for the negligent acts of its independent contractors when:

  • The independent contractor was acting within the scope of its assignment or agreed upon duties; or
  • The independent contractor was carrying out a government function for which it had authority.

The same rules apply under the Act for independent contractors as they do for employees. Again, the independent contractor may not be sued individually under the California Tort Claims Act but instead the lawsuit must be against the government itself.

2.3 When can the government be liable for failure to carry out a legal duty?

If a law imposes a particular duty upon a government entity or agency, and that entity or agency fails to fulfill that legal duty, the government can be held liable for injuries caused as a result under the California Tort Claims Act.

Example: If a government agency is responsible for ensuring that roads are kept in a safe manner, and the agency negligently fails to correct a large pothole it has known about for months, a person injured by the unsafe road condition may be able to sue the agency for damages under the Act.

Note, however, that many government officials acting in their discretionary capacity are protected by qualified immunity

2.4. Who is responsible for accidents that happen on government property?

When the government owns or controls the property, the government may be liable for injuries caused by any hazardous condition on the property. However, premises liability claims against public entities have a different standard.

In a premises liability claim against the government, the plaintiff has to show:

  1. The property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury;
  2. The injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition;
  3. The dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which occurred; and either:
    1. The danger was created by a negligent or wrongful act of a public employee, or
    2. The public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and enough time to correct or protect against the dangerous condition.34

To establish notice, the dangerous condition may have existed for a period of time and was obvious enough that the government entity should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character.5

3. How do I file a claim under the California Tort Claims Act?

To file a claim against the State of California, a county government, or a municipal government agency, the injury victim must give notice of his or her claim.6 This may include filing a report or sending a letter which may suffice as notice, so long as it contains all of the necessary requirements. However, many agencies and municipalities have claim forms that individuals can fill out to provide notice of the claim.

An attorney at the Shouse Law Group can ensure you meet all of the claim requirements, including making sure you file your claim in within the appropriate time limit. Failure to properly file a claim or filing the claim too late could mean your claim will be denied.

3.1 What information does my claim have to include?

The person seeking to file a lawsuit against the government agency or entity must file a claim which includes the following information:

  • The name and postal office address of the claimant.
  • The post office address to which the person presenting the claim desires notices to be sent.
  • The date, place and other circumstances of the occurrence or transaction which gave rise to the claim asserted.
  • A general description of the indebtedness, obligation, injury, damage or loss incurred so far as it may be known at the time of presentation of the claim.
  • The name or names of the public employee or employees causing the injury, damage, or loss, if known.
  • The amount claimed if it totals less than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) as of the date of presentation of the claim, including the estimated amount of any prospective injury, damage, or loss, insofar as it may be known at the time of the presentation of the claim, together with the basis of computation of the amount claimed. If the amount claimed exceeds ten thousand dollars ($10,000), no dollar amount shall be included in the claim. However, it shall indicate whether the claim would be a limited civil case. 7

Failure to include all of the necessary information can invalidate your claim. If a proper claim is not filed within the time period set forth by law, the claim may be denied.

3.2 What is a "limited case?"

If your claim exceeds $10,000, you may not be required to indicate the amount you seek in your claim, but you are required to indicate whether the claim is a "limited civil case." A civil case is a "limited civil case" if the plaintiff is seeking less than $25,000, not including costs and reasonable attorney fees, and the plaintiff is not asking for any of the following:

  • A permanent injunction: A court order which commands the government agency or entity to or prevents it from taking the complained of action or activity;
  • An action which seeks a determination of title to real property;
  • Enforcement of any order under the Family Code; or
  • An action for declaratory relief: A case which asks the court to state and establish the rights and other legal obligations of the parties involved, but does not actually order enforcement.

It is important to discuss your case with an experienced attorney before filing a claim. Many injury victims under-value their case or do not take into account all their damages. Even minor injuries can require follow-up care or continuing medical treatment. Not asking for enough to fully compensate you for your injuries could leave you paying out of pocket for something that wasn't your fault.

3.3 Do I have to file a lawsuit if I filed a claim?

If you file a proper notice of claim, you may not have to immediately file a lawsuit. By filing a claim, an injured victim leaves open the option of filing the later lawsuit. However, the party may not be required to follow through with the lawsuit if the government agency agrees to pay the claim.

Example: Carlos was injured as a result of a broken staircase while in a municipal building. Carlos and his attorney file a claim with all of the necessary information and within the time limit. Later, Carlos realizes that he does not want to go through with the lawsuit. He is not required to under the law, but he kept his options open by filing his claim.

4. What are the time limits for filing my claim under the California Tort Claims Act?

The act sets forth very strict guidelines for filing a claim against a government entity or agency. Failure to follow these strict guidelines may result in dismissal of any late claim. This means that an otherwise proper lawsuit for which a plaintiff could receive damages may be invalidated because it was outside of the strict, and often short, time period in which to file.

Most personal injury claims have a limited time to file a claim. However, the statute of limitations, or time allowed to file a claim against government entities is generally shorter than claims against private parties.

A notice must be filed within six months for claims which concern:

The notice must be filed within six months of the date of the injury. In very limited circumstances, the six-month period may not begin to run until the plaintiff first discovers (or should have discovered) the injury. For example, in a medical negligence case, the victim may not be aware of an accident or injury until weeks or months later. 8

Claims which relate to all other causes must be brought within one year of the injury. These actions would include, but are not limited to:

  • Breach of contract actions;
  • Damage to real property; or
  • Declaratory judgment actions not subject to a six-month limitation.

It is critical that the claim is filed within the appropriate time limit to protect the lawsuit from being dismissed.

4.1 Can I file a late claim?

Late claims without a qualifying reason will generally be denied. However, a late claim may sometimes be accepted when the claimant files their claim along with an "application for late filing." There are four valid reasons for being late in filing a claim:

  1. Mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect;
  2. Minority (claimant was a minor under the age of 18 during the entire six-month period);
  3. Mental or physical incapacity; or
  4. Death of a claimant.9

Filing a late claim is subject to further strict requirements, but with the help of an experienced personal injury attorney your chances of successfully filing your late claim may increase significantly.

5. What happens after I file my claim?

Once your claim is filed, the public agency generally has 45 days in which to respond or take action. This time is extended somewhat depending on if the claim is mailed and from where the claim is mailed.

There are 5 possible outcomes after a claim is filed:

  1. The entity fails to respond within the appropriate time period. This means that the claim is deemed rejected.
  2. The entity may approve the claim in whole or in part. The entity may offer a compromise to the claim, which may constitute a settlement of the whole case.
  3. The entity may reject the claim.
  4. The entity may state the claim does not have sufficient information. The claim can be amended within the time period set by law to fill in that missing information.
  5. The entity may return the claim for being untimely.

6. What do I do if my claim is rejected?

If the claim is rejected, a claimant can file suit in state court against the government. To do so, a claimant files a petition with the Superior Court asking to be relieved from the claims requirement. 10

If the original claim was rejected in whole or in part by the government entity by some form of notice from that entity, the claimant has only six months to file the petition with the court.

If the original claim was rejected because the governmental entity failed to respond to the notice, the time in which to file the petition is two years from the date of rejection.

6.1 What if the court grants my petition?

If the court grants the petition to proceed without the claim requirement, the claimant must file his or her lawsuit within 30 days. Failure to file suit within this time period can result in the inability to ever file the suit again. 11

6.2 What if the court denies my petition?

If the court denies the petition to proceed without the claim requirement, the order denying the petition may be appealed. Your California personal injury attorney can file the appeal on your behalf. If successful on appeal, you will be able to file your case against the government.

Call us for help...

For questions about the California Tort Claims Act or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our skilled California personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at the Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Injured in Nevada? See our article on qualified immunity and suing Nevada and Las Vegas.

Legal References

  1. Legal Information Institute. Sovereign Immunity.
  2. California Legislative Information. Cal. Gov. Code § 815.2. ("A public entity is liable for injury proximately caused by an act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment if the act or omission would, apart from this section, have given rise to a cause of action against that employee or his personal representative.")
  3. California Government Code 835 -- Liability of Public Entities.
  4. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1100 -- Dangerous Condition on Public Property.
  5. California Government Code 835.2.
  6. California Legislative Information. Article 1. General 910-913.2
  7. California Legislative Information. Cal. Gov. Code § 910.
  8. California Legislative Information. Cal. Gov. Code § 911.2.
  9. California Legislative Information. Cal. Gov. Code § 911.4.
  10. California Legislative Information. Cal. Gov. Code § 946.6.
  11. California Legislative Information. Cal. Gov. Code § 946.6(f).

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