Civil Litigation Legal Topics

File a Claim or Forget Your Suit Against a Public Entity!

Most lawsuits seeking money or damages against a public entity or public employee acting within the scope of  employment, must be preceded by a proper administrative claim under the Government Claims Act (formerly known as the Tort Claims Act) (Govt C §§810–998.3). The reasons for the claims presentation requirements are very practical: They give the governmental entity a chance to settle just claims before suit is brought and, by permitting early investigation of  the facts, enable the entity to defend against unjust claims and correct the conditions or practices that gave rise to the claim.

The claims presentation requirement also has a draconian edge to them: If a claim is required and not timely submitted, the case is over before it begins.  This makes it extremely important that attorneys understand the deadlines for filing a claim, which depend on the type of cause of action involved.

Here’s an overview of those critical claim filing deadlines:

  • A claim for wrongful death, personal injury, or damage to personal property or growing crops must be presented on or before 6 months after the cause of action accrues. Govt C §911.2(a). The 6-month period governs not merely physical injury, but damage to “reputation, character, feelings or estate.” Toscano v County of Los Angeles (1979) 92 CA3d 775, 782, 155 CR 146.
  • A claim for any other cause of action, e.g., for breach of contract or damage to real property, may be presented as late as 1 year after the cause of action accrues. Govt C §911.2(a); Mehl v People ex rel Dep’t of Pub. Works (1975) 13 C3d 710, 716, 119 CR 625.
  • If the claimant has the option of proceeding either on a tort or contract remedy, the claim period depends on the theory the claimant adopts. Lawrence Berkeley Labs, Inc. v Mitchell (1952) 39 C2d 56, 62, 244 P2d 385.

For everything you need to know about the claims requirement, including filing procedures and timing, see chapter 13 of the Municipal Law Handbook, which is new from CEB and the League of California Cities. This is the book the cities use, so it gives you an insider’s edge! Also check out an overview of claim procedures and the time limits for claim presentation in CEB’s California Government Tort Liability Practice chap 5 and §§6.11–6.31.

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