Personal Injury Claims Against the Government - The Basics

There are many different situations where a government employee or government entity may cause your injuries. For example, you may slip and fall at the DMV, or your car might get rear-ended by a city bus. While the government may be liable for your personal injuries, and you may be entitled to compensation, there are stringent guidelines you'll need to follow when suing the government. Read on to learn more.

Defining “Government” in the Personal Injury Lawsuit Context

First things first: you must determine whether the government was responsible for your injuries, and which specific government entities to include as defendants in your personal injury lawsuit. Any employee of a local, municipal, state, or federal government body, while in performance of his or her duties, is a part of the “government” in the personal injury context.

For example, if you are in a collision with a county sheriff deputy's vehicle, the deputy is acting as a government employee. In this situation, you need to follow your state-specific guidelines when you sue the deputy, the sheriff, and/or the sheriff’s department. However, if you get into a car accident with a United States Postal Service clerk on her way home from work, she is not acting as a government employee and you can bring a regular personal injury lawsuit against her.

Notice of Claim

When suing the government, you need to file a notice of claim before filing a lawsuit in court. The notice of claim requirements will vary from state to state. It is typically one to three pages long. In the notice of claim, you need to explain that you have a claim against certain government employees or government entities. You will include the facts surrounding your injuries and state each cause of action that you have against the government.

Suppose you feel that a deputy sheriff in Smith County used excessive force against you. As soon as possible, you should file a notice of claim. The notice of claim should be sent to each defendant and any other entities as prescribed in your state laws. The notice of claim might explain that you were pulled over for speeding, and the sheriff deputy threw you to the ground without justification and utilized a taser gun on you. At the end of the notice of claim, you should state that you will be suing for Battery, Assault, and Excessive Force (or something similar).

The purpose of a notice of claim is to give the government a period of time to investigate your claims. During the notice of claim period, the government may contact you to discuss your claims. The government may wish to settle your case outside of court. However, in most cases, the government will deny your claim, and you will need to bring a lawsuit after the notice of claim period expires.

Time Limitations

Some states have very strict time limitations for claims against the government. For example, in New Mexico, a notice of claim must be sent to the appropriate government body within 90 days of the accident. In Pennsylvania, the notice of claim must be sent within six months of the accident. Failure to send the notice of claim within the applicable time period will bar you from bringing any future personal injury lawsuit against the government regarding your injuries.

Governmental Immunity

Depending on the type of government body and alleged injuries, the government enjoys immunity from certain personal injury claims. Governmental immunity from personal injury claims is often called “sovereign immunity.” There is no absolute government immunity anymore, but states have established caps on recovery and other limitations.

Caps on Recovery.  Under many state laws, there are limits on the amount of money that you can recover from the government in a personal injury suit. For example, in Florida, the state is not liable on any claim exceeding $200,000 per person and $300,000 for all claims arising from a single incident.

Punitive Damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish wrongful behavior and deter the conduct in the future. In Florida, as with other states, you cannot recover punitive damages from the government in a personal injury lawsuit.

Discretionary Functions. There are certain discretionary functions of the government that are immune from suit. For example, where the government places a stop sign in a dangerous location, that will likely be considered a planning decision, and the government will probably be shielded from liability for any claims related to it. However, if a government employee negligently installs the sign and it falls on a pedestrian, the government can be sued for the accompanying injuries.

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