Can I Sue USPS?
Yes, depending on the basis of your claim, you may be able to sue the United States Postal Service (USPS). You can't sue for lost mail, so think about getting insurance if you are concerned about a particular package. You can also send it through certified mail to receive proof that the mail was delivered. But if you are seeking to recover for personal injuries, you can sue the U.S. postal service so long as you follow the proper procedures.
Suing the postal service can be complicated. You need to navigate your way through the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and, if you don't do it right, your claim will be barred. So if you are thinking about suing USPS, consider consulting an experienced personal injury attorney knowledgeable about the FTCA.
The United States Postal Service employs more people than any other independent government agency. As of 2021, the USPS reported having 516,636 career employees and another 136,531 non-career employees. That's roughly the population of Boston.
It's also one of the busiest federal agencies. The USPS operates a fleet of more than 230,000 vehicles and more than 30,000 retail outlets. It processes and delivers 46% of the world's mail, an average of 425.3 million pieces daily. It's the only organization with the resources, network, infrastructure, and logistical capability to serve every residential and business address in the country. If it were a private sector company, the USPS would rank 43 in the 2021 Fortune 500.
The USPS is in the process of updating its fleet of delivery vehicles, which has generated some controversy. In fact, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit on behalf of several states against the USPS, claiming that they must upgrade to new vehicles that are electric vehicles instead of fossil-fuel delivery trucks.
USPS Isn't Perfect
With all of that mail, delivery doesn't always go smoothly. Imagine, for example, you are scrambling during the holiday season, trying to get presents mailed to everyone on your guest list. You pay the USPS extra to make sure a package arrives on Christmas Eve. You text Christmas morning, excited to hear if the intended recipient liked the gift, only to find out the package didn't arrive. You are annoyed, to say the least.
Sometimes the problems are more than mere annoyances. With all those vehicles on the streets, there are bound to be accidents — roughly 29,000 of them in 2019. If you're lucky, your car is dinged up. If you're not, you wind up in an ambulance on your way to the hospital.
Say you're one of those people who gets hit by a USPS driver in a mail truck accident. You spend months in rehab learning how to walk again. There's no way you're going to be able to pay your medical bills. You lose a ton of time from work. Your family is telling you that you should sue the USPS, and you're thinking that that sounds like a pretty good idea. So you meet with an experienced personal injury attorney in your area and ask if you can.
They tell you that there are some steps you have to take, but you likely can. But first, they give you a little background.
The first thing your lawyer talks about is something called “sovereign immunity." They say that in the old days, it was up to the king to decide whether they could be sued and, if so, in what manner. When our nation declared its independence, we inherited this legal doctrine. Today, sovereign immunity means you can't sue the government unless it says you can in a statute (law).
But it's not just about whether you can sue the government. Under sovereign immunity, the government has the power to decide how it can be sued. For example, a law that says you can sue the government can still restrict lawsuits to a particular court or a particular type of claim, or even impose limits on the amount you can recover. So before you rush off to court, you need to make sure whether your complaint is one that a court has the power to hear.
The Federal Tort Claims Act
Congress has waived sovereign immunity in the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 (FTCA). The FTCA allows you to recover from the federal government for personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage caused by the negligence of a federal employee acting within the scope of their employment.
Negligence is a civil claim you can bring if you are injured because of someone's failure to use reasonable care under the circumstances. In order to establish a negligence claim, you need to prove the following elements:
- Duty: a legal obligation recognized by the law to use reasonable care toward another
- Breach of duty: the failure to use reasonable care toward another
- Causation: a legally recognized connection between the failure to use reasonable care and injuries sustained by another (lawyers split this into two and call them proximate cause and cause-in-fact)
- Damages: legally recognized and provable losses resulting from the failure to use reasonable care
Your lawyer starts asking you a bunch of questions about the car accident. They want to know where you were, what you were doing, what the mail truck was doing, what speed it was going, whether they had a green light — all of the details you can remember. Turns out you happened to be in the crosswalk and the mail truck ran a red light. Your lawyer seems satisfied that you would be able to make out the elements of a negligence claim.
They then start asking you about your damages. They want to know about your injuries, the time you spent in rehab, your pain and suffering, the time you lost from work, your salary, and your medical bills. They tell you that chances are good that you can be compensated for these losses you sustained as a result of the driver's negligence.
Scope of Employment
Your lawyer then turns to whether the postal carrier was operating the mail truck within the scope of their employment. Under the FTCA, a government agency can only be held responsible for the negligence of its employees if they were acting within the scope of their employment at the time of an accident. This generally means that they were doing their job on behalf of their employer.
Say the accident occurred in the middle of the day when the postal carrier was on their way back to the post office after mail delivery. Your lawyer seems satisfied that you will be able to show that the postal carrier was acting within the scope of their employment at the time they hit you.
You feel a sense of relief at the prospect of recovering for the losses you sustained and ask about the next steps. Your lawyer tells you that you can't file a lawsuit just yet. The FTCA requires you to follow specific procedures. Screw these up and your claim could be barred. So, you listen very carefully.
File a Claim With the Agency
Your first step is to file a claim with USPS. You typically use a specific form, Standard Form 95 (although so long as your claim contains the required information, you don't have to use the form). You have to submit your claim within two years from when the claim accrues (this typically is two years from the date of the accident). If you don't, your claim will be barred.
Your lawyer then pulls out a blank SF 95 form, just to show you the type of information you need to compile in order to fill it out. As you will see, you generally need to provide:
- Some basic information about yourself (such as your date of birth and your contact information)
- The basis of your claim (the facts about where the accident occurred, who was involved, and the cause and nature of the accident)
- A description of your injuries (the USPS will want itemized bills)
- The names and addresses of any witnesses
- The amount of your claim (under the FTCA, you have to request a specific dollar amount)
- Information about any insurance coverage you may have
You can fill this claim out on your own, but when you look at it and realize how complete and careful you need to be, you are happy to have a lawyer on your side. They start going over the information you need to compile to prove your claims, such as wage statements and medical bills.
Your lawyer tells you that once you submit your claim, the USPS will decide whether to pay it. They could seek additional information, conduct an investigation, and negotiate with your lawyer about the amount. In the end, if you agree on an amount, USPS will pay your claim. If your claim is paid, you can't then go and sue the USPS.
If the USPS decides to deny your claim, they will let you know in writing. If you are unsatisfied with the denial (as you most likely would be), you then have six months from the date the denial is mailed to file a lawsuit in federal court. If you don't file your lawsuit within those six months, your claim will be barred.
You Have Homework to Do
You tell your lawyer that you don't have all of your bills on hand. You also need to pull together information that would show the wages you lost as a result of your injuries. Your lawyer tells you not to worry. They can help you with that. They ask you about who your employer is, where you were treated for your injuries, and where you did your rehab. Your lawyer fills out some forms for you to sign — releases that let them gather your records — and has you sign them before you leave their office. They tell you they will get started and be in touch.
You Can't Sue for Lost Mail
Pleased, you shake your lawyer's hand and turn to leave. By the way, you ask, you have a question about that Christmas package you sent that got lost in the mail. You are really upset about that — you did pay extra so it would get there in time — and wonder if you can sue the USPS for it.
Your lawyer smiles and tells you that unfortunately, you are out of luck. Remember sovereign immunity? Well, there is a specific exception carved out of the FTCA for “any claim arising out of the loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter." In other words, the government retains sovereign immunity for claims relating to lost mail. So while you might be able to sue FedEx or UPS for losing a package, you can't sue the USPS. As your lawyer shows you out, they suggest you file a missing mail claim with the USPS. Next time, you'll pay for insurance.
Before Suing the USPS, Speak with a Lawyer
As you can see, filing a lawsuit against the USPS is a complicated process. You need to follow the right steps and file your claim in time or else you can't sue USPS.
You can try to do this on your own, but you'd have much better luck if you had the help of an experienced accident attorney. A lawyer can give you legal advice within an attorney-client relationship about your claim, let you ask related questions, and help you decide whether a lawsuit is in your best interests.
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