Car Accidents Involving Government-Owned Vehicles & Government Workers
UPDATED: June 19, 2018
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It is difficult to sue the government—federal, state, city or town, county—but it can be done. A government entity enjoys protection under a doctrine known as government immunity or sovereign immunity (both terms are used interchangeably). The laws over the years have established the situations where you can sue (and cannot sue) the government, including personal injury accidents caused by a government employee.
To put this in perspective, in most cases you have a right to sue the person legally responsible for injuries you suffered in a traffic accident. You are entitled to be made whole by the wrongdoer, which means to be paid for your medical expenses, associated damages, and property damage (or to have damaged property replaced). However, in dealing with government and government officials such as a police officer, a firefighter, an ambulance driver, a mail carrier, etc., you may find yourself holding the bag in the event of an accident, even if you were not in the least at fault.
Sovereign (or Governmental) Immunity
Incidents involving government vehicles are governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA provides a limited waiver of the government's sovereign immunity when it's employees are negligent within the scope of their employment. The government can only be sued "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." 28 U.S.C. S 1346(b).
Governmental Immunity and Car Accidents
One of the more common exceptions to government immunity (where the government may be liable for its actions) is vehicle liability, when government employees are involved in auto accidents. These typically include emergency vehicles, such as police car pursuits, fire trucks rushing to a fire, or ambulances rushing through intersections to get to the hospital. Non-emergency accidents are also possible, like being rear-ended by the public school bus or side-swiped by a city public works landscape truck.
Government immunity laws in accident cases differ from state to state. The threshold for proving driver responsibility and fault is significantly higher when you’re suing the government (such as proving gross negligence) than what is required in a typical accident case involving a private individual. Cases involving emergency vehicles are even more complicated. The rules are typically different when a real emergency is involved. In real emergencies, the government is given great latitude to respond. But the level of latitude can also differ depending on whether or not the emergency vehicle had its sirens and lights on in a way that allows the emergency crew to respond while preserving the public’s safety.
If you collided with a mail truck and the mail carrier was at fault, you would sue the U.S. government under the Federal Torts Claims Act because the carrier is a federal employee.
Filing a Vehicle Accident Claim Against the Government
If you are seeking compensation from the government for damages caused by one of its employees, you will likely need to file an administrative claim with the government entity (city, county, state or federal) first. Most government entities give very little time in which to do this, usually between 30-180 days. Don’t miss this deadline or you may lose your right to recover for your damages. Some government units have a claims form that you can fill out and return to the clerk’s office of the government agency responsible for your accident. You may have to plug in a dollar amount on the claim form to settle your claim. If you must give a settlement figure, be sure to carefully calculate all the damages you may be entitled to recover as you may be limited to that amount in any future lawsuit. You will be sent a letter if your administrative claim is denied. You can, however, still sue the government in a court of law. The letter will tell you how much time you have to file a lawsuit.
Lawsuits against the government are complicated and involve all sorts of technical procedures that must be followed and deadlines that must be met. If you are considering suing the government, the most prudent thing to do is to first consult with an experienced car accident attorney.