Suing a City, County, or State for Injury: Special Rules

If you want to sue a local government for an injury, you'll need to follow a rigid set of rules, and you may be limited in terms of when and how much you may recover.

A city, town, county, or state government can be held responsible when it causes injuries, just as any regular person or business could be held liable. However, unlike regular personal injury lawsuits, you must follow certain steps and meet deadlines for an injury claim against the government.

Failing to follow these steps or meet a time deadline can sink your injury claim. Here are the main differences and rules you must watch out for.

Shorter Time Limits

In ordinary cases, you must worry about the statute of limitations for a personal injury lawsuit. The statute of limitations is a legal term that describes the period of time in which you must file a lawsuit or bring an injury claim after your injuries. This period typically ranges anywhere from one to six years.

But, when suing the state or local government, strict time limits often apply to bringing your injury claim. Some jurisdictions require that you file a claim within 30 days of your injury. Other states require a claim within 60, 90, or 120 days after your injury. Many states have a time limit for claims against a city, town, county, or municipality and another for claims against the state or a state agency.

However, not all states have a government-specific time limitation, and you might only need to be aware of your injury's general statute of limitation.

Notice Requirements

In most states, you can't simply file a lawsuit in court against the government. Instead, you need to provide a "Notice of Claim" to the government. If you don't follow the notice of claim guidelines, the court will dismiss your lawsuit. You must ensure that the Notice of Claim complies with the laws of the applicable jurisdiction.

Format of the Notice of Claim. In most jurisdictions, the Notice of Claim must be addressed to each person or entity that caused your injuries. The Notice of Claim isn't filed with the court but must be mailed (often by certified mail) to each government employee or entity. The notice may also need to be mailed to a single government agency that receives all Notice of Claim forms. Every Notice of Claim in Florida must be mailed to the Florida Department of Financial Services.

Specific information must be included in the notice. For example, in Pennsylvania, the notice must have the name and address of the injured person, the date, location, and hour of the accident, and the name and address of medical care providers.

Notice of Claim Period. After sending the Notice of Claim to each person or entity, you must wait for a period of time before filing a lawsuit in court. This period is typically between 30 and 120 days. The court will dismiss a lawsuit filed before the Notice of Claim period expires.

The Government Might Be Immune From Your Injury Claims

The government is immune from certain injury claims. While this immunity is less broad than before, the government is still immune from many injury claims. Again, this immunity (often called "Sovereign Immunity") varies from state to state.

For example, in Illinois, several governmental immunities are related to negligence claims. Under Illinois Law, the government is immune from lawsuits for negligence for:

  • failure to supervise activity on public property
  • negligence related to health and safety inspections, and
  • negligence connected to injuries caused by unsafe conditions on government property if the government didn't have notice of the conditions.

In Pennsylvania, governmental employees and entities also enjoy certain immunities from liability. These immunities relate to:

  • operation of a motor vehicle
  • care, custody, and control of personal and real property in possession of the government
  • dangerous conditions of trees, traffic controls, street lighting, utility service facilities, streets, and sidewalks, and
  • care, custody, or control of animals in possession of the government.

Most states will not allow injured persons to recover punitive damages from the government. Punitive damages are compensation awarded to an injured person to punish the wrongdoer and deter future similar misconduct. The rationale behind this policy (against punitive damages in these cases) is that punitive damages wouldn't have the same deterrent effect where the government is involved.

To learn more about these special types of cases, see our section on Injury Claims Against Government Entities.

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