If you've been injured or incurred property damage in an incident for which a government agency or government employee was at fault, you'll need to follow a special claim filing procedure in order to get compensation for your losses. (Get the basics on filing an injury claim against the government.)
While there's sure to be some variety in the way different governments handle the injury claim process, here are some common steps you can expect as your claim moves along.
Soon after you file your claim, you may be contacted by a claims adjuster. This person might work directly for the government entity involved in the accident, or for the city, county, or state attorney’s office. In some situations, the contact might come from a private claims adjuster for the government entity’s insurance company. In any case, deal with this person as you would an insurance adjuster representing a private business or individual. That is, until you are ready to make a formal demand for settlement and begin actual negotiations, give only basic information. Your formal demand for settlement and the negotiation process will come later and will operate much the same as with a private insurance company. Learn more about the demand letter and the personal injury settlement negotiation process.
The first thing that may happen after you file your claim (or "notice of claim" as it's sometimes called) is that you receive a letter from the government telling you that your claim is insufficient, because it failed to include certain required information—such as the date or location of the underlying accident.
Getting a notice of insufficiency does not mean that your claim has been denied. It simply means that, before the time limit for filing the claim is up, you must provide the government entity with the missing information, in writing. This is another reason why getting your claim filed as soon as possible is the best strategy. Don't wait until the time period is almost up.
In some states, government entities will negotiate with you about a settlement only after your formal claim has been denied in writing (see the next section for details) or after the time period has elapsed within which the government has a right to grant or deny your claim (see “If Your Claim Is Neither Granted Nor Denied,” below for details).
In other states, the written claim and its denial are usually nothing more than a formality, and the government entity will begin to negotiate with you as soon as you file your claim. Regardless of when it begins, the negotiating process is exactly the same as with the insurance company for a private business or individual. Learn more about how injury settlement works and how long the injury settlement process takes.
The formal claim process is intended to give the government a chance to investigate your claim before you are allowed to take the matter to court. But the process is usually just a formality, and almost all formal claims are denied. Official denial of your claim does not mean the government will refuse to compensate you for your injuries. A denial merely ends the formal claim process and legally permits you to file a personal injury lawsuit against the government, if necessary. Once the formal claim is denied, the government entity will negotiate with you about settling your claim just as if it were a private business.
In most states, the government has only a limited time after you file your formal claim—usually 30 to 180 days—in which to grant or deny it. Within that time, you should receive a written notice from the government officially denying your claim. The significance of the formal written denial is that it permits you to file a lawsuit against the government agency if you do not agree to settle the case. And in some states, the government entity will not begin to negotiate with you until the formal claim is officially denied.
Often, a government entity receives your formal claim and you never hear anything more about it. Instead of officially granting or denying the formal claim, the government simply ignores it. In this situation, the claim will be considered denied after the government’s time period for granting or denying it has run out. You are then legally permitted to pursue your claim against the government, by lawsuit if necessary, just as if you had received an official written denial. Note, however, that the government’s silent denial of your formal claim also starts the clock running on the time within which you can legally file a lawsuit (set by a law called a statute of limitations), just as if it had denied your claim in writing.
For more tips on filing every kind of injury claim and everything you’ll need to navigate your case, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). And you may want to consider talking with a personal injury attorney to make sure all your legal bases are covered and your rights are protected.