Government Tort Claims
Sometimes, the government is a defendant in a personal injury claim. For example, you might file a claim against the government for inadequate road maintenance after you suffer a car accident. When you file a claim against the government for money damages, you are essentially claiming against all of its taxpayers, including yourself. That is why governments place special obstacles in the way of people who seek to file claims against the government.
Sovereign immunity is a legal principle bequeathed to the United States by English law. Originally stated as “The King can do no wrong,” today it simply means that you cannot sue the government without its consent.
Every US state and the federal government has granted its citizens limited consent to sue the government. This consent appears in the Federal Tort Claims Act (for federal claims) or the Texas Tort Claims Act (for state and local claims).
The Federal Tort Claims Act
Filing a claim against the federal government is different from filing a claim against a private party.
The Elements of a Claim Against the Federal Government
To file a claim against the federal government, you must prove the following four elements:
- The defendant was an employee of the federal government at the time the claim arose;
- The employee acted wrongfully (negligently, for example);
- The employee’s wrongful behavior caused you harm; and
- The employee was acting within the scope of their employment.
Even if you prove these four elements, you cannot maintain a claim against the federal government for an employee’s “discretionary” acts. This exception is designed to prevent claimants from second-guessing government policy through personal injury law.
You could sue the post office if one of its on-duty carriers negligently plowed into your car, for example, but you couldn’t sue them for failing to require periodic safety inspections of postal vehicles.
The Federal Statute of Limitations
You have two years from the date of your injury to file an administrative claim with the government (not a courtroom lawsuit). If you miss this deadline, you won’t be able to file a lawsuit later, and you will have no leverage in settlement negotiations.
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
You must exhaust your administrative remedies before you can file a lawsuit. This means you must:
- File a written claim with the agency you are claiming against (the US Postal Service, for example).
- Wait up to six months for the government to respond to your claim. If they deny your claim or offer you inadequate compensation, you can file a lawsuit immediately. If you don’t hear from them after six months, you can also file a lawsuit.
- Once you qualify to file a lawsuit, you have six months to file it.
- The “six months to file a lawsuit” countdown doesn’t start ticking until the government rules on your claim. If they still haven’t decided on your claim after six months, you can still sue. Nevertheless, you are not subject to any deadline to sue until the government rules on your claim.
Note that federal law usually prevails in a clash between state and federal law.
Filing a Lawsuit
You must file your lawsuit in the appropriate US District Court, not a Texas state court. You cannot demand more money than your administrative claim (unless you have new evidence). You cannot request punitive damages.
Both courts and administrative agencies favor settlement. You can settle your claim either during the administrative or lawsuit phase.
The Texas Tort Claims Act
The Texas Tort Claims Act places significantly more restrictions on claims against the state and local government than you will face when you claim against the federal government. Texas only waives sovereign immunity for the following claims:
- Accidents involving motorized vehicles; and
- Accidents caused by the condition or use of tangible personal property or real estate.
Texas forbids every other type of claim. Remember, Texas treats local governments as subdivisions of the state government and holds claims against local governments to these restrictions too.
Limitations on Damages
The Texas Tort Claims Act limits personal injury compensation to a maximum of $250,000 per person and $500,000 per accident. If you claim against a “unit of local government” (as opposed to a “municipality”), your personal injury compensation limits are $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident. You can also claim up to $100,000 per accident for property damages incident to a vehicle accident.
The Statute of Limitations
You have 180 days to file a written claim. If you are suing a local government, however, your time limit may be shorter. Austin, for example, gives you only 45 days after the accident to file an administrative claim. As long as you file your administrative claim on time, you have until two years after the accident to file a personal injury lawsuit with a court.
Seek the Advice of a Personal Injury Lawyer
Personal injury lawyers usually offer a free initial consultation where they can evaluate the strength of your claim. Almost all personal injury attorneys work on a contingency fee arrangement. Your legal fee will equal a pre-agreed percentage of your compensation if you win. If you lose, your legal fee will be precisely zero. That leaves you with little to lose by contacting a lawyer.