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Can You Sue the Government for Injuries Suffered on Public Land?

The “Governmental Immunity Doctrine” Protects the Government From Many Private Lawsuits

Most Government entities are “immune from liability” – meaning they cannot be sued by private individuals, even those individuals are harmed by the government’s actions or inaction.

Exceptions to the “governmental immunity” doctrine do exist, however; various statutes establish situations where private individuals can sue the government–provided the plaintiffs fall within the terms of the statute and comply with the procedures set out within it. California’s Government Code contains the Government Claims Act (California Government Code Section 810 et seq.), also known as California’s “Tort Claims Act,” which establishes the circumstances under which private individuals can sue the state of California.

When Can Plaintiffs Sue a Government Entity Over Injuries Suffered on Public Land?

Generally speaking, in California a governmental or public entity is not liable (and cannot be sued) for hazardous conditions on public property unless an injured plaintiff can prove:

1. A dangerous condition existed on the public land at the time of the plaintiff’s injury.

2. The condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury the plaintiff actually suffered.

3. The government or public entity had actual or constructive notice (“knew or should have known”) about the dangerous condition far enough in advance that it should have acted to prevent the plaintiff’s injury, or the dangerous condition was created by a wrongful act (or failure to act) by an employee of the government entity.

Each of these elements is mandatory, meaning that if the plaintiff fails to prove even one of them, the lawsuit cannot go forward and the plaintiff cannot prevail.

This test is distinctly different from the test for private landowner responsibility, which involves a negligence-based analysis of duty, breach, causation, and damages. Here, the plaintiff must prove not only a dangerous condition but that the condition risked the actual injury plaintiff suffered and that the government knew about or was directly responsible for the danger.

Government and public entities also have defenses available to them that private landlords do not possess, making a suit against a public entity much more complicated–legally and factually–than a suit against a private individual.

Before Suing the Government, Plaintiffs Must Generally Also Comply With Certain Claim Presentation Procedures.

The Government Claims Act contains specific “claim presentation procedures” that Plaintiffs must follow before suing public entities on claims seeking either money or damages.  Among the procedures, plaintiffs must submit a written claim to the proposed governmental defendant before filing a lawsuit. Although this procedure is not required if the plaintiff is not demanding “money or damages,” most cases do involve requests for money, and thus require compliance with the presentation procedures.

Never attempt to sue the government, or a public entity, without experienced legal counsel. If you have been injured, or your property harmed, by the government, contact an experienced attorney promptly for an individual evaluation of your rights and claims.


Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Negligence and premises liability claims are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against a property owner who permitted or failed to repair a dangerous condition, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your possible rights and claims.

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