Personal Injury

Government Liability for Auto Accidents

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law | Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If you're making an injury claim after a traffic accident involving a government vehicle, you'll need to play by a different set of procedural rules.

If your car accident involves the potential liability of a government entity or a government employee -- that means everything from accidents involving government-owned vehicles to crashes that may have been caused by dangerous highway conditions. -- you can’t just go to the courthouse and file a personal injury lawsuit for your injuries and other losses resulting from the crash.

Thanks to a legal concept known as sovereign immunity, governments, their agencies, and their employees are protected from many kinds of liability, and that includes responsibility for car accidents, even in situations where a private entity or individual would be deemed at fault for the crash.

The good news is that the federal government and all 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) have enacted some form of legislation that effectively “waives” this immunity. The bad news is that, as a condition of that waiver, these governments have also set up very strict procedural rules for you to follow when making a claim for injury -- including short deadlines for when a claim must be filed, and requirements on what the claim must contain. If you don’t follow these rules, you’ll lose the right to hold the government responsible for your car accident injuries.

Tort Claims Acts and Injuries Caused by the Government

At the federal level, the U.S. government has enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives the sovereign immunity of the federal government and permits the filing of injury claims based on acts or omissions -- meaning things that were done, or things that should have been done but weren’t -- by a federal employee acting on behalf of the U.S. government.

After a car accident involving the potential liability of a U.S. government employee, here is how a typical claim proceeds under the FTCA:

  • You have two years to get your administrative claim filed, starting on the date of the car accident.
  • You must describe the facts supporting your claim with enough specificity so that the government can conduct a proper investigation, and include a specific dollar amount as your “damages” stemming from the accident (the total amount of your medical bills and the cost to get your car fixed, for example).
  • The government will usually rule on your claim within six months.
  • If the government “admits” your claim, it will compensate you for your injury. The amount of compensation will vary. It could be the dollar amount you asked for, or it could be any portion of that.
  • If your claim is denied, you may file a lawsuit over your injuries, but you must do so within six months of the denial.

At the state level, every state has passed some version of a “Tort Claims Act,” many of which mirror or at least resemble the FTCA, with their own claim filing deadlines and processes for the submission and review of injury claims.

When Can the Government Be Liable for a Car Accident?

Putting aside for a moment the procedural rules we’ve discussed above, there are a number of situations where a government entity or a government employee might be responsible for a car accident, either in whole or in part.

For example, let’s say a government employee is driving a government-owned vehicle, and they rear-end your car at a stoplight. As long as the employee was “on the clock” or otherwise acting in an official capacity at the time, this kind of accident could trigger a claim under a Tort Claims Act. The same is true if the vehicle is a bus owned and operated by the city or county.

Hazardous highway and road conditions can also give rise to a claim for injuries and damages, if those conditions played a part in causing a car accident. These include:

  • roadside hazards
  • line-of-sight obstructions
  • pavement edge drops
  • construction zones that aren't properly marked, and
  • unreasonably dangerous rail-highway grade crossings.

Usually, responsibility for dangerous highway conditions rests with the state or federal agencies responsible for their construction and maintenance. Depending on the circumstances of the accident, private companies who contract with government agencies to perform highway design, construction, and maintenance may also bear some measure of liability.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you think your car accident involves the potential liability of the government, it’s probably time to discuss the case with a local car accident attorney. You’ll need to navigate a unique and strict set of procedural rules before you can get compensation for your injuries, and you’ll still need to prove exactly how the government’s action (or inaction) played a part in causing your accident.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I was rear-ended by an off-duty sheriff who was driving his cruiser home. Would my lawsuit be against the officer personally, or against the county?
  • I was hit by a city bus while I was crossing the street. I filed a claim with the city but they said it was too late. Is there anything I can do?

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