If you are injured on public property, you deserve fair compensation. Here’s how to file a successful injury claim against federal and local governments.
Federal, state, and local governments used to protect themselves from injury claims through an ancient rule called sovereign immunity.
Sovereign immunity essentially means the government can do no wrong, and citizens have no right to complain.
Fortunately, that all began to change in 1948 when Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). ¹
The Tort Claims Act allows people injured on federal property or by federal employees to file personal injury claims and lawsuits against the federal government.
Taking the lead from the FTCA, states began to enact their own version of a tort claims act, permitting people injured on state or city property, or by government employees, to file personal injury claims.
You deserve fair compensation for your injuries. However, pursuing compensation from the government is not like filing an insurance claim. Here’s the critical information you need for building a successful injury claim against the government.
Common Injuries in Public Places
Government property includes public parks, government buildings, public museums, public sidewalks, federal, state, and local roadways, and all other locations a government agency owns or controls.
Injury-causing accidents typically include:
- Slip and falls on government property
- Auto accidents due to poorly maintained roads or traffic signals
- Auto accidents caused by government employees
- Public transportation injuries
- Assaults in public schools
- Drowning in public pools
- Electrocution from fallen power lines
- Child injuries on faulty playground equipment
- Wounds from falling tree branches in parks or on sidewalks
- Defective or missing handrails or guardrails
- Injuries at post offices, tax offices, libraries, public housing, and more
Federal, state, and local governments are responsible for making government property safe for visitors, including private individuals and civilian contractors hired to make repairs or improvements.
Limits to Potential Compensation
When a government agency fails to keep the property it owns or controls safe from dangerous conditions, it’s considered negligent. If their negligence results in injuries, then the agency is liable, meaning responsible, for the injured person’s damages.
Damages for personal injuries can include the cost of:
- Medical and dental treatment
- Out-of-pocket medical expenses
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
Typical injury claims include an amount for pain and suffering as part of total damages. Unfortunately, some government agencies have strict limits on injury compensation and may only reimburse you for economic losses, not for emotional distress.
Unlike private non-government injury claims where damage compensation is almost unlimited, the government caps its injury settlement amounts.
Further, unlike private injury claims where gross negligence or reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of others can result in punitive damages, government statutes prohibit the recovery of punitive damages.
Rapid Claim Notice is Critical
Filing a personal injury claim against a government agency is different from filing one against a private person or company.
Injury claims against non-government entities begin by dealing with the at-fault party’s insurance company. If the insurance company denies the claim or offers too little, the injured person can file a lawsuit. This isn’t the case with claims against the government.
When you’re injured on public property, the first step is filing a notice of claim with the agency responsible for maintaining the property. You must use the government agency’s specific injury notice form. The form must be filled out exactly right, sent to the right office, and submitted within a very narrow time frame.
If you make a mistake or don’t send your notice to the right agency, your time can run out before you get a chance to re-submit. You’ll lose your right to seek compensation for your injuries.
The federal, state, and municipal governments will each have their own deadlines and claim notification forms. However, most notices require the following information:
- Your name and address
- Date of injury
- Description of injury
- How your injury happened
- Why the government was negligent
- How the negligence caused your injury
- Financial losses to date, such as medical bills and lost wages
Use Standard Form 95 for injury claim notices to federal government agencies. State, county, or city notice forms should be available through the specific local government’s website.
Beware of Government Filing Deadlines
For some agencies, the filing period can be as little as 30 days from the date of your injury, or the date you discovered your injury. If you miss the filing deadline, you may forfeit your right to seek compensation, no matter how badly you’re hurt.
The notice of claim makes the government agency aware of your intention to seek compensation for your injuries. The notice also gives the agency time to respond to your claim.
If the agency accepts your claim, you’ll receive compensation. If the agency rejects your claim, you have the right to file a lawsuit.
If your claim is denied, the clock starts ticking all over again with a new deadline for filing a lawsuit. It’s up to you to act before time runs out.
Don’t forfeit your right to compensation. Contact a personal injury attorney to discuss an injury claim against the government.
Proving Government Responsibility
Government agencies must exercise the same level of care to protect their property from dangerous conditions as any private party would. When the government fails to exercise that care, they’re liable for injuries suffered by anyone who had a legitimate reason to be on the property.
If while walking through a privately-owned apartment complex, a person was hurt by falling in a pothole, the landlord would be liable.
Similarly, if while walking through a government-owned parking lot, a person was hurt tripping in a pothole, the government agency would be liable.
In both cases, the pothole must have existed long enough for the landlord or the government agency to know. In other words, the landlord or agency may not be negligent if they didn’t have a reasonable amount of time to find out about the pothole and repair it.
To prove government negligence, you must show:
- The government agency owned or controlled the property.
- A dangerous condition existed on the property.
- The government agency knew or should have known the dangerous condition existed.
- The agency had a reasonable amount of time to repair the dangerous condition and didn’t.
- Your recklessness or hazardous conduct didn’t cause your injury.
When You Share Blame for the Accident
In some states, if you share blame for your injuries, you won’t be allowed to collect any money. Fortunately, in most states you still may be eligible for compensation for your injuries, even when you might be partially to blame for causing your accident.
Contributory Negligence rules affect personal injury claims in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Under pure contributory negligence rules, your claim will be flatly denied if you’re so much as one percent to blame.
Comparative Negligence or modified comparative negligence rules apply in most states. Under pure comparative negligence rules, you have the right to pursue an injury claim even if you’re 99 percent to blame for your injuries. Your compensation is reduced in proportion to your share of the blame.
Key Evidence for a Strong Claim
The paperwork for government injury claims may be different, but the proof needed to win your claim is the same as any other injury claim.
All successful personal injury claims must have good evidence. The more evidence you have of the government’s negligence, the better your chances.
Property Records: Identifying government property like public parks, state roads, commuter rail cars, and public schools is relatively easy. Some properties aren’t as easy to classify as government owned. Finding ownership or control of some public property may take a little research.
For example, if you were injured by a trip and fall on an uneven sidewalk outside a store, you may have to go to the local tax office or property records department to learn whether the store or the government owned the defective sidewalk.
Photographs and Video: Use your cell phone to gather photographic evidence of the injury scene. Take as many pictures and video as you safely can of the hazardous condition that caused your injury. Record it from several angles, making sure there’s no confusion about the danger.
Remember, once the government agency learns about your injury claim, there’s a good chance it will quickly repair the dangerous condition that caused it. Once that happens, you’ve lost the opportunity to gather evidence vital to your claim.
Example: Obstructed Stop Sign
You were driving down a local road when another vehicle hit you from the side. You were injured. The other driver claimed you caused the accident by running the stop sign. You argued there was no stop sign.
When the driver pointed out the sign, you realized you couldn’t see it because a tree on government property next to the road was overgrown and obstructed your view.
Photographing the obstructed stop sign will not only help in defending against the other driver’s claim but will also support your claim against the state roadway authority for negligence.
Your cross-claim may not only relieve you of liability for the car accident, but it can also help you succeed in recovering your damages from the government.
Witness Statements: While family and friends make good witnesses, independent onlookers make great witnesses. Independent witnesses have no personal or financial stake in your claim’s outcome. Their statements can weigh heavily in your favor.
Ask witnesses to write down on any available paper what they saw and heard. Have them sign and date their statements.
Example: Injured at the DMV
While renewing your driver’s license at the motor vehicle department, you sat down on a chair next to a clerk’s desk. The chair broke as you sat down. You fell hard, hurting your neck and back. Along with several clerks, others were waiting in line who came to your aid.
In this situation, while waiting for the paramedics to arrive, ask the clerks for their names. Ask them to call the department head. Ask those who came to your assistance to write down what they saw. I
f they can’t immediately write down their statements, ask for their names and contact information so you can get in touch with them later.
Incident Reports: Governments run on paperwork. When you’re injured on government property, the senior worker will likely take down your information and complete an incident report. Make it clear you did nothing wrong. For example, you sat down, and the chair broke.
Write down the department head’s name, title, and contact information. Also, ask for a copy of the incident report.
Admissions Against Interest: Listen to any statements made by government employees after you’ve been injured. Be alert for comments regarding the dangerous situation that caused your injury. Their statements are especially valuable if they show the government knew of the dangerous condition and failed to repair, replace, or remove it.
Continuing with our DMV example, while you were waiting for medical assistance the clerk may have said, “I told my supervisor the chair leg was loose,” and another chimed in, “That chair is so old it’s no wonder it broke apart.”
Statements like those are admissions against interest, which means they’re saying something that’s not to their employer’s benefit.
Because employees said those things, the DMV will have a tough time denying previous knowledge of the chair’s dangerous condition. Consequently, these admissions make powerful evidence in your claim.
Medical Records: To complete your claim, you must connect your injuries directly to the government agency’s negligence. You also must prove the severity of your injuries, the type of treatment you received, and the costs associated with that treatment.
The only way to do that is with copies of your medical bills and records, including doctors notes, test results, and other medical documentation.
Never refuse or delay medical treatment for your injuries. Be sure to tell your medical provider exactly where, when, and how you were injured.
While photographs, witness statements, and admissions against interest are important, the treating doctor’s written diagnosis is the link you need to verify your injuries were real and were due to the government’s negligence.
Hiring a Personal Injury Attorney
Unless you’ve already recovered from minor injuries like bumps, bruises or sprains, you’re probably better off speaking with an experienced injury attorney right from the start.
Seeking compensation from the government is a completely different ball game than a regular insurance claim. You don’t have the luxury of time to try to settle your claim before deciding to hire an attorney. By the time you realize you made a mistake, it will be too late to start over.
Government claim filing deadlines are very short, and there are no extensions. Unless your claim is perfectly prepared and sent to the correct agency before the deadline, you’re sunk.
You’ll need experienced legal help for claims involving:
- Hard injuries, like broken bones, spinal cord injuries or brain trauma
- Comparative negligence
- Future wage loss
- Child injuries
- Wrongful death claims
- Permanent or disabling injuries
There’s too much at stake to risk handling a complicated claim against the government on your own. One error could cost you everything, and there’s no going back.
Don’t wait. There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to discuss your case with a skilled personal injury attorney.
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Public Property Injury Claim Questions & Answers
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