Yes, you can file a claim against the government for an auto accident injury, provided that you comply with the special conditions applicable to personal injury lawsuits against the government. These conditions depend on whether you are suing the federal government, the state government, or a local government.
The Sovereign Immunity Doctrine
If you win a lawsuit for money damages against a government, the money comes out of the state treasury. If effect, you are actually suing John Q. Taxpayer, including yourself if you are a taxpayer in the jurisdiction. It is for this reason that, absent special exceptions, the government enjoys “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits for money damages. Exceptions do exist, and they are codified in special legislation.
Tort Claims Acts
The general rule is that you can only sue a government if it grants claimants permission to sue it – otherwise, it enjoys immunity from lawsuits. Typically, the legislature of a government will pass a Tort Claims Act that allows the government to be sued for certain claims. Permissible claims almost always include auto accident injury claims. Special application procedures apply, the statute of limitations is often different, and other requirements may apply as well.
The Ministerial Act Exception to Sovereign Immunity
One barrier to filing a lawsuit against the government is whether the act or omission is classified as a discretionary act or a ministerial act. In a nutshell, a discretionary act involves the application of judgment, while a ministerial act is routine. Generally, you cannot sue the government for a claim arising from a discretionary act, but you can sue the government for a claim arising from a ministerial act.
The reason for this distinction is that suing governments because you don’t agree with their judgment would paralyze governments and essentially leave courts in charge of the country. Fortunately, courts across the nation have consistently identified driving a car as a ministerial act, not a discretionary act.
The “Identifiable Victim” Exception to Sovereign Immunity
Governments typically waive their own sovereign immunity when the following conditions are met:
- The plaintiff was an identifiable victim of the defendant’s alleged negligence.
- The harm that was allegedly suffered by the plaintiff was imminent when the defendant’s negligence occurred.
- It was apparent to the defendant that his conduct was likely to harm the plaintiff in the manner that the harm actually occurred.
- If the lawsuit is based on the defendant’s alleged failure to act, it must have been obvious to the defendant that his failure to act would probably put the plaintiff in imminent danger.
In each case, the “defendant” is the government as represented by one of its employees. If you are involved in an auto accident with a recklessly driven state police car, for example, the “defendant” is the state of Connecticut acting through one of its employees – in this case, a state trooper.
Keep in mind that you should sue the government rather than the state trooper in his personal capacity. In effect, the government acts as the insurer of the consequences of the negligent acts of its employees.
Suing the Federal Government
The Federal Tort Claims Act authorizes certain types of lawsuits against the federal government, including auto accident lawsuits. These lawsuits are subject to special characteristics, however, as described below.
State Law Applies with Federal Jurisdiction
If you are involved in an auto accident in Connecticut that was caused by the negligence of a federal government employee, for example, Connecticut state law will apply, regardless of the residence of the defendant. Despite the fact that state law will apply, however, you must bring your action in a US District Court and the judge will decide the case without a jury.
What You Have to Prove to Win
The basic elements of a negligence claim apply to an auto accident claim against the federal government:
- The federal government employee (presumably the driver of a vehicle involved in the accident) must have breached his duty of care towards you – in other words, he must have acted negligently.
- The federal government employee must have been acting within the scope of his duties at the time of the accident. Simply being a federal government employee is not enough to hold the government liable.
- The employee’s negligence must have substantially contributed to the accident.
- You must have suffered the damages you are claiming (lost wages, pain, and suffering, etc,)
Federal Government Employees vs. Independent Contractors
You can maintain a lawsuit against the federal government against one of its employees, but you generally cannot maintain a lawsuit against an independent contractor, even if the contractor was hired by the government (unless you can prove the government was negligent in hiring the contractor). Instead of suing the government for the actions of an independent contractor, you will need to sue the independent contractor or his insurance company.
An example of this situation would be if you sued a commercial trucker who was executing a government contract at the time of the collision. Keep in mind, however, the difference between an employee and an independent contractor is a judgment call that is based on a variety of considerations. The basic principle is that an independent contractor enjoys far more independence from the entity that hired him than an employee does.
The procedure for suing the federal government is different from the procedure used to sue private entities in the ways that are described below.
Notice of Claim
If you want to sue a division of the federal government, you must provide them with the advance written notice of your claim using Standard Form 95. Exactly where you file this notice and who you file it with depends on which branch of the government (the Postal Service, for example) you are planning to sue. On Standard Form 95, you state the amount of damages you are seeking, and you provide facts sufficient to allow the government to investigate your claim.
The Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations with respect to the Federal Tort Claims Act sets the deadline by which you must file the Notice of Claim – generally, within two years of the accident. Once you deliver the Notice of Claim, the government has six months to deny liability. If it does not do so within that time, you are free to file a lawsuit in federal court. If it does deny liability within this six-month window, you can file a lawsuit immediately.
Limitations on Compensation
There are several limits to the damages you can receive from a successful auto accident lawsuit against the federal government:
- You cannot collect punitive damages.
- You can’t collect pre-judgment interest.
- If you settle before you file a formal lawsuit, reimbursement for attorney’s fees cannot exceed 20 percent of the amount of the settlement.
- If you file a formal lawsuit, attorney’s fees cannot exceed 25 percent of your total recovery.
Suing the Connecticut State Government
Connecticut sovereign immunity law applies to claims against the state government, and in many ways, the rules are the same as the rules for suing the federal government. Lawsuits arising from auto accidents are permitted, and you can also sue the state for auto accidents caused by improper maintenance of highways and bridges (not limited to state highways).
The person who caused the accident must have been a state employee (normally the defendant cannot be an independent contractor) who was acting lawfully within the scope of his duties. Unlike federal claims, however, you don’t have to sue in federal court, simply because you are suing the government. You will probably need to submit a Notice of Claim in duplicate to the Connecticut Claims Commissioner. The Notice of Claim must include:
- your name and address, as well as the name and address of your lawyer (if you have one);
- a short statement describing the date, time, place, and circumstances of the accident;
- the amount of damages you are claiming;
- a formal request for permission to sue the state; and
- a filing fee of $25 if your claim is under $5,000, or $50 if your claim exceeds $5,000 (this fee can be waived under certain circumstances).
Once the Claims Commissioner has received your Notice of Claim, he will hold a hearing on the merits of your claim. After the hearing, the Claims Commissioner will have 90 days to:
- deny your claim;
- give you permission to sue the state;
- pay your claim at his own discretion, if it is no more than $20,000; or
- recommend that the Connecticut General Assembly approve any amount over $20,000 (unless you file a lawsuit, only the General Assembly can approve a claim of more than $20,000).
The Statute of Limitations
Generally, in the case of an auto accident, you must submit your Notice of Claim within one year of the date of the accident. Different rules apply to prison inmates and wrongful death claims, however. If you are injured in an auto accident and don’t realize it immediately (as can be the case with certain head injuries and soft tissue injuries), your one-year statute of limitations begins on the date that you discovered or should have discovered your injury.
You will not be allowed to delay submitting your Notice of Claim any longer than three years after the accident, unless the Connecticut General Assembly makes an exception to the ordinary statute of limitations through a special legislative act.
Suing the Local Government
In the United States, including Connecticut, local governments and public schools are considered to be parts of the state governments in a way that states are considered to be parts of the federal government. For this reason, you can sue a local government or a public school on the terms set by Connecticut sovereign immunity law – in other words, you don’t have to look for the town or school’s individual rules for sovereign immunity.
Native American tribal governments also enjoy sovereign immunity, but only Congress can limit this immunity to allow a lawsuit against a tribe. State governments do not have the power to limit the sovereign immunity of a Native American tribe, even if its territory lies within their state.
Get in Touch with Us Immediately
If you have been injured in an auto accident, or if your loved one recently died in an auto accident, it is imperative that you secure competent legal representation, regardless of whether you believe that the government was to blame for your accident.