How Can I Sue the City?
You can sue the city under specific circumstances, but only if the government has waived immunity. Because a municipality is a government entity, you are generally forbidden from suing it because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a legal concept that means government entities (“sovereigns") have to give their consent before they can be sued.
If you have suffered a personal injury involving the city government, such as a car accident with a city employee, you have a limited period of time to enforce your legal rights by suing the city for negligence. Consult with a personal injury lawyer to see if sovereign immunity has been waived for your case so that you can sue the local government.
Types of Cases
The most common types of cases against the government — negligence and accident tort cases — are eligible to be brought under various state and federal laws known as Tort Claims Acts. Torts are injuries caused by civil wrongdoings; each state has its own Tort Claims law where it has waived sovereign immunity for certain kinds of claims that might arise under state law. Similarly, the federal government passed the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in 1946 to allow injured people to sue the government of the United States for injuries caused by federal agencies and employees.
Therefore, under various federal and state laws, the government has waived its sovereign immunity for certain types of cases. Your potential claims against a city may vary depending on the state in which the incident occurred, but in general, you can sue a city (and the federal government) for:
- Property Damage
- Bus, Train, and Car Accidents
- Personal Injury (Negligence)
- Wrongful Death
- Medical Malpractice
- Premises Liability (e.g. slip and fall on sidewalks)
- Breach of Contract
- Civil Rights Violations
Additional claims against the city may be available depending on the unique laws of your state.
Scope of Employment
Keep in mind that most claims against the government, including the city, arise from the actions of their employees. In order for you to sue a city for damage to your property or person, you have to show that a government employee did something wrong to cause harm to you.
It's not enough that a person who causes damage to you is a government employee. For example, if a person who happens to be a city employee ends up causing a car accident in which you are involved, that person might be personally responsible if they were driving on their own time and as a private citizen, such as during a weekend outing.
On the other hand, if a person who causes you harm does so while they are acting under the scope of their employment with the city government, you would have a strong argument that the city is responsible for your damages. In other words, a government employer may be found to be responsible for the acts of their employee while that employee causes harm while performing their job duties.
Notice of Claim Prior to Court Filing
If your personal injury case is against a city, county, or state government, you may first need to file a Notice of Claim depending on the laws of your state. A notice of claim is a simple form that you submit directly to the government agency that hurt you. For example, if a city employee rammed their truck into your car while performing their governmental functions, you would submit your Notice of Claim to the government building or department that employs that city employee.
The Notice of Claim form will ask for your phone number and other contact information as well as information about the location, date, and nature of the damages or injuries you suffered. The form provides the government with an opportunity to review your claim before you can formally file a lawsuit against them in court. If the claim is denied by the government or they issue you a “Right to Sue Letter," you will then have a right to sue them in court. If you're lucky, you may be offered a settlement before you are ever forced to sue the city.
If your personal injury case is against the federal government, the equivalent “notice of claim" for federal purposes is the Standard Form 95, which is available for download on the U.S. General Services Administration website. This form is the precursor to filing a case against federal agencies in U.S. district courts. It covers personal injury, death, and property damage, and must be submitted to the federal agency whose employee you allege has acted wrongfully or negligently in causing you harm while under the scope of federal employment.
There is a time limit—sometimes as short as a few months—to file your Notice of Claim after an accident occurs. Check with a legal professional for the exact limits in your state.
The amount of money you can recover will depend on the extent of your injuries. Generally, if you sue and win a case against the city government, you can expect to be paid for your:
- Pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life
- Time and income lost from work (lost wages)
- Medical bills and caregiver expenses
- Replacement cost of damaged or destroyed property
- Lost income and companionship of a loved one as a result of their death
Additionally and depending on your state and what you're suing for, you may also be able to obtain:
- Punitive damages — An order from the court that the government be punished by paying you up to three times your actual damages
- Injunctive relief or specific performance — This can arise in civil rights cases and can be an order from the court requiring the government to stop doing something, e.g., to stop discriminating against you or stop taking your property, or to start doing something, e.g., honor a contract it signed with you.
Hypothetical Case Example
To put it all together, let's assume your friend is legally crossing the street when they trip and fall on a pothole that the city forgot to repair despite multiple accident reports over several years. Your friend suffers mild knee scrapes from the fall; but just as they are getting up to finish crossing, the city bus crosses a red light and smashes into your friend, breaking their leg and their valuable gold pocket watch.
Your friend is taken to a government hospital where a doctor, a city employee, mistakenly amputates your friend's healthy leg while failing to treat the one that was broken.
Here, while they are alive, your friend may have:
- A personal injury case against the city for failing to cure the pothole and then causing your friend's knee to break in the bus accident;
- A lawsuit for property damage as a result of the broken pocket watch;
- A medical malpractice claim against the city because its employee amputated the wrong leg.
Now suppose that your friend passed away as a result of the injuries they sustained in the bus accident. Your friend's representative can bring a wrongful death claim against the city to try and recover:
- the medical expenses and funeral expenses they had to pay out of pocket; and
- any lost income and loss of companionship the family suffers from your friend's absence.
An Experienced Attorney Can Help
There are multiple time limits (statutes of limitation) in place when you're trying to sue a government entity, especially if you're dealing with personal injury claims. While personal injury lawsuits must be brought to court timely in and of themselves, the fact that a government agency is involved means that you have another layer of deadlines (Notice of Claims) to deal with. This time sensitivity means you may have anywhere from a few months to a few years to act depending on your city and state.
If you or a loved one have suffered property damage in an auto accident or have otherwise been involved in a personal injury case against a government employee, it wouldn't hurt to get a case evaluation from a personal injury attorney. Additionally, if you have been the victim of mistreatment by a police officer or other federal government, city, or state law enforcement agency, you should also consider getting legal advice from a civil rights attorney.
Some lawyers will provide a free case review and even work on contingency to avoid charging any up-front fees until they have obtained a recovery for you.