Lawsuits against government entities in California

Government entities enjoy fewer liabilities than private citizens, but there are several circumstances when an injured party can sue under California law.

Public liability protections proceed from sovereign immunity doctrine — one that has relaxed over time but still limits the circumstances when a citizen can sue  federal, state and local government.

Federal sovereign immunity and exceptions

As FindLaw explains, sovereign immunity in the United States began when Congress enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act in 1946, protecting the federal government from liability. This act protected the government from nearly all lawsuits for wrongful death, property damage and personal injury. Over time, these laws have changed to allow claims if the federal employee caused the damage through negligence while acting within the capacity of his or her official duties.

State and local sovereign immunity and exceptions

Each state, including California, has enacted similar laws to protect state and local government. The California Tort Claims Act protects public entities from most liability and allows them to use “any defenses that would be available to the public entity if it were a private person.”

The act does, however, allow for lawsuits in a few cases. A public entity may be liable for an injury if dangerous conditions of government property caused the injury, but only if the damage “created a reasonably foreseeable risk” of the incident, and only if negligence on the part of the entity or staff caused the dangerous condition.

In other words, if the City of San Mateo receives a broken sidewalk report and fails to act in a timely manner, they may be liable if the condition causes a resident to trip and suffer injuries.

The essential question

Employees acting within the scope of their job enjoy personal liability protections; liability would apply only to the public entity. These protections do not extend beyond the scope of duty, however, so employees may still be liable for personal and gross negligence.

As a counterbalance, state law provides that public entities are immune from liability for any employee negligence that is outside of his or her scope of employment, including actions that would warrant disciplinary actions by a supervisor.

This means that questions of public liability generally come down to whether the employee was within his or her duties at the time in question.