While walking your dog, you slip and fall on the crumbling sidewalk just outside a city government building. Can you sue the city for your injuries? An on-duty police officer runs a red light and hits your vehicle. Can you sue the municipality that employs the police officer? While it is possible to sue a city for some kinds of accidents, lawsuits against governments are generally more complex than a similar case would be against a private individual. This article addresses how to start building a negligence claim against a city.
In many states, you must file a “Notice of Claim” against the city before you file a lawsuit. State law generally determines what must be included in the notice of claim, and when and how the claim must be filed.
In general, however, the notice must include:
Some states require that the Notice of Claim be filed within a specified period of time after the accident occurs. Other states require only that the Notice of Claim be filed within a specified period of time before the filing of any lawsuit. The failure to properly file a Notice of Claim may result in the case being dismissed from court. Therefore, it is extremely important to check your state’s laws to make sure that you are in compliance with them.
Sometimes after receiving a notice of claim, the city will choose to settle with the injured party rather than deal with what may be a long and complicated lawsuit. More often, the city will deny the claim. At this point, the injured party can file a lawsuit against the city for negligence.
In order to make a case for negligence against the city, the injured party must establish all the elements of a negligence claim: 1) the city’s duty of care, 2) a breach of that duty, 3) proof that the breach of duty caused an injury, and 4) actual injury.
As with any negligence suit, it is important to gather as much evidence as possible to support your claim. This includes obtaining witness statements, photographic evidence, medical records and bills, and arranging for reports and testimony from treating physicians.
Just as with a negligence claim against a private individual, the plaintiff’s first burden is to establish that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff.
The duty owed depends on many factors including the circumstances of the accident, whether city employees were involved, and the legal status of the injured party at the time of the accident.
For instance, the city may not owe a duty of care toward trespassers who are injured on city property, but may owe a duty of care towards individuals who are performing work for the city on city property. Or, the city may not owe a duty of care to clean up ice and snow on sidewalks outside the city courthouse, but may owe a duty of care to do so if the city is aware (or should be aware) that the ice and snow is covering a hazard such as a large hole.
What makes negligence claims against a city more difficult than a claim against a private individual is that many states have laws that grant immunity to cities (and city employees) for some negligent actions. For instance, suppose a pedestrian is injured when a police officer, while responding to a 911 call, hits the pedestrian as she is jaywalking with headphones on. The pedestrian probably won’t be able to maintain a claim against the officer or his employer (the city), because the government's immunity will be in place. But if the plaintiff could prove that the police officer was on duty but was driving recklessly (perhaps speeding down a residential street but without sirens and lights), the city may not be shielded by the immunity defense.
Many other factors are involved in determining whether a city can claim immunity, and they depend on the facts of the particular case as well as the law of the state in which the accident occurred.