Can I Sue the Government for a Personal Injury?

It happens often enough that a government employee is in the exercise of his or her normal and expected duty and while using a state car, gets into an accident. A recent local case is a prime example of this scenario. A police officer responded to an emergency call, drove through an intersection, and hit the plaintiff’s car, causing injuries. City of Brazoria v. Ellis, No. 14-14-00322-CV (Tex App. May 28, 2015) memorandum opinion. Under common law, an individual has no right to sue the state. The state has sovereign immunity. In order to sue the government for any reason, you must have the government’s permission.

The State of Texas grants citizens the right to sue the State, cities and/or counties within the State of Texas under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The Texas Torts Claims Act grants permission to sue for certain specific limited circumstances that are defined under the statute. One of the most common grounds for recovery under the Tort Claims Act is for injuries sustained from a state actor in control of a motor vehicle. Other common grounds that permit recovery are injuries sustained from a defect on real property or a contract dispute with the State.

Notice to State and Statute of Limitations

To properly proceed with an action for recovery under the Tort Claims Act, the state is entitled to a “notice of claim.” The failure to properly provide notice to the state is fatal. Without proper notice to the state, the trial court is without jurisdiction to hear a case under the Tort Claims Act. The plaintiff must notify the governmental entity within 180 days of the incident. This six-month timeline is not tolled, or suspended, because the victim may be a minor. (The notice period can be and often is shortened by municipalities and/or counties) The notice must include the following information:

● Description of the damage incurred,
● Injury suffered,
● Identity of the parties injured,
● The incident that led to the injury, and
● The time and place of the injury.

If the government entity has actual notice of the incident, notice is not required. The government entity must have actual notice of the same information that must be included in the notice. The notice requirement is merely a necessary first step, or, condition precedent, to proceed with a lawsuit. The plaintiff has up to two years after the incident to file suit.

Limitation on Damages

The maximum amount that any individual may recover depends on what type of government unit is sued. The state and municipalities allow for up to $250,000 per person, $500,000 per incident. All other levels of government allow for $100,000 per person, $300,000 per incident. Punitive damages are not permitted.

Exceptions

There are some important exceptions that make an otherwise viable cause of action under the  Texas Tort Claims Act no longer viable. The most important exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act is when the state actor is properly responding to an emergency call or responding to an emergency situation and the actor did not act “with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, § 101.055.