Tort Claims Act: A Trap for Unwary Californians with Claims Against Public Entities

by | June 4, 2020 | Civil Litigation

In California, individuals been harmed by public entities must comply with the stringent and idiosyncratic requirements of the Tort Claims Act (TCA) in order to preserve their right to pursue legal action and recover damages.

While most employees have between 300 days and three years to initiate legal action against their employers, those with claims against public entities have only six months to initiate action by “presenting a claim” to the entity.

Many workers are not aware that their employers are public entities or that they must follow the special provisions of the TCA before they can sue. In addition to state, county, or local government departments and agencies, the TCA also applies to less obvious arms of government, including transportation and water authorities and sanitary, school, and hospital districts. Even attorneys sometimes fail to realize these quasi-public entities fall under the protections of the TCA.

If a public employee does manage to get his or her ducks in a row within the narrow window, he or she must comply with the highly specific requirements to properly “present a claim” to the public entity itself. The “claims presentation process” is wrought with difficulties. What is a claim? How does one present a claim? To whom must the claim be presented?

One would expect, in this day and age, that a claim could be presented by completing a form online, which could be swiftly found by clicking the “Present a Claim” link on the homepage of the public entity’s website. No such luck.

While the requirements vary for different types of entities, the TCA dictates that a claim is presented to a local public entity only by mailing or hand-delivering the documents to the entity’s “clerk, secretary, auditor, or to the governing body at its principal office.” Gov’t Code § 915(a).

Who is the clerk, secretary, auditor, or governing body of any given public entity you may ask? That information may be inconveniently available in the entity’s statement on file in the “Roster of Public Agencies,” which can be accessed only by visiting the office of the country clerk in person.

The claim itself is simple enough: it is essentially a signed document containing prescribed categories of information to notify the entity that the claimant is seeking damages for an injury attributed to the entity or a public employee. However, the claim must contain all legally relevant information; if the information is missing, the claimant risks waiving a cause of action. Therefore, claims should be drafted by an attorney.

Compliance with the TCA is strictly required in order to sue a public entity for damages. Failure to properly present a claim prior to filing a complaint often results in the case being dismissed in its entirety. The requirement is particularly pernicious because it can be difficult to determine which public entity is responsible for the harm. Numerous courts have dismissed complaints when an individual attempted to present a claim, but mistakenly sent the documents to the wrong entity.

The claim presentation process is purportedly intended to give public entities the opportunity to investigate and settle claims without the cost of litigation. Instead, the TCA succeeds only in closing the courthouse doors to aggrieved individuals unaware of its byzantine requirements.

Although a person theoretically could complete the claims presentation process without an attorney, the risk of attempting to navigate this opaque process alone is enormous. If you’re an employee of a public entity with a claim against your employer, you should act immediately: contact an attorney with experience pursuing claims against public entities such as Sanford Heisler Sharp to ensure your rights are preserved.