Victims often consider pursuing lawsuits against individuals or private corporations to recover their losses when someone else’s negligence causes them injury. But what happens when the responsible party is a government entity? In Texas, the process of seeking legal redress against a government body comes with specific regulations and some extra complexities. Your Bryan, TX and Hempstead, TX personal injury lawyer will be able to give you specific advice on your case.
Sovereign Immunity and Suing the Government in Texas
Sovereign Immunity Defined
In personal injury law, the concept of sovereign immunity is essential to understand. Sovereign immunity offers protection to federal and state governments from lawsuits, unless they give consent. Rooted in the English principle that “the king can do no wrong,” this doctrine was historically designed to shield the monarchy from facing legal action. In the modern-day U.S., it has been adapted to protect government entities, ensuring that their work is not held back by being constantly under the shadow of potential litigation.
However, Texas, like most states, has given citizens the right to sue under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA). In some ways, you can sue the state as you would a private entity, but there are some very specific differences. For example, you cannot recover exemplar or punitive damages from the state, and the damages that can be claimed are capped, meaning there is a maximum limit to the amount you can recover. State and city governments allow for up to $250,000 per person and $500,000 per incident in damages, and for other levels of government the limits are $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident.
There are other differences that can affect the timeline of a case or your particular experience, so be sure to ask your lawyer for more. As per the TTCA, governmental bodies may be liable for personal injuries if those injuries are the result of negligence by their employees during their employment, particularly if the injury is linked to the use or misuse of tangible personal or real property. Common scenarios where the government can be held liable include automobile accidents involving government-owned vehicles or slip and fall accidents on government premises.
Special Defects vs. Premises Defects in Texas
In Texas, the TTCA classifies two defect categories where you may sue: special defects and premises defects. The distinction between the two has implications regarding the duty the city or other entity owes and the proof you’re required to bring.
A special defect refers to a public space that presents an unexpected and unusual danger to ordinary users. Such defects are not the norm and could catch an individual off-guard, leading to potential injuries.
If an injury arises due to a special defect, the injured party needs to demonstrate that the municipality was aware or should have reasonably been aware of the hazard. Some examples of special defects could include an uncovered meter box or a hole in the sidewalk resulting from a removed utility pole. The key here is that the defect is unexpected.
A premises defect is a more permanent defect. It will have existed for a significant amount of time and might be seen frequently on public properties. Some examples of premises defects include a crushed sidewalk, an eroded spot, or a separated portion of the sidewalk. The injured party must prove both that the city had actual knowledge of the defect and that they themselves were unaware of it, unless the injured party paid for the use of the premises.
So, for example, if a person walked down an eroded area every day for weeks going to work, and one day slipped, they would likely not be able to sue because they were not unaware of it. It’s important to note that if the defect arises from the design of the public area itself, like a sidewalk, it’s categorized as a design defect and immunity isn’t waived for these cases. In essence, this means that if the danger was due to how the sidewalk was originally designed rather than to a subsequent change, the city usually cannot be held liable.
There are strict timelines for filing claims against state government entities: usually 180 days. However, individual cities and municipalities have their own codes that could reduce this timeline. If you don’t adhere to these notice requirements, you may lose the right to file the claim entirely. Once you have filed this notice, you have up to two years to file your claim.
Given the time-sensitive nature of these cases, consulting with an experienced Bryan, TX and Hempstead, TX personal injury lawyer is a non-negotiable, and you should do it as soon as possible.
Initiating a Claim
In cases against government entities, your notice to the government should detail the damage or injury, the time and place of the incident, the identity of everyone who was hurt, and the circumstances surrounding it. Providing insufficient details can lead to a dismissal of the claim.
If the government entity already has notice that someone died or sustained some injury or property damage, then there’s no need to give them notice; however, the government must be aware of all the information that would normally be contained in the notice.
Suing Different Governmental Entities
Cities and Municipalities
While cities do not enjoy blanket immunity, they are protected when engaging in their required governmental functions, such as police work and fire protection. So, for example, if an ambulance on the way to an emergency accidentally causes a car accident, you typically cannot sue unless the driver acted with “conscious indifference or reckless disregard.”
However, when cities engage in proprietary functions, which are activities that could be carried out by private entities, they can be sued just like any other private entity. Distinguishing between these functions is often a major point of contention in this type of legal proceeding.
Suing the Federal Government
The process of suing federal agencies is governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The FTCA provides limited waivers to the federal government’s immunity. The process involves presenting the claim to the appropriate federal agency before proceeding to a lawsuit, and like the TTCA, the FTCA has specific limitations and exceptions. Talk to your lawyer to learn more.
Challenges in Proving Liability
Burden of Proof
One of the primary challenges in filing a personal injury lawsuit against anyone is the burden of proof. You must demonstrate that the governmental body was negligent and that this negligence directly resulted in your injury.
Qualified Immunity for Government Employees
Qualified immunity generally shields government officials from personal liability unless they violated “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights. This protection makes it even more challenging to hold individual government employees accountable in personal injury cases.
Choosing the Right Bryan, TX and Hempstead, TX Personal Injury Lawyer
If you’re considering a lawsuit against a government entity, the expertise of the attorney you choose matters immensely. There are specific statutes, timelines, and nuances to these cases, and it’s imperative to work with an attorney who specifically handles this type of tort claim.
Filing a personal injury lawsuit against a government entity is hardly simple, but with the right information and good legal representation, it’s possible to get the justice and compensation you deserve. If you or a loved one has suffered an injury due to the negligence of a government entity, it’s essential to act promptly. Reach out to Brian Gutierrez, Personal Injury Trial Lawyer now for a free case assessment.