Under early British common law, the antecedent to American legal principles, lawsuits against the government were not permitted. At the time, all law was the purview of the sovereign and no monarch was interested in allowing themself to be sued. As more democratic systems of government developed, the argument evolved. In early American law, claims against the government were bared on the ground that the government was essentially composed of the people and it seemed antithetical to principals of collective action to allow the negligence of a single government employee to drain the public coffers.
This governmental immunity from liability was first waived in California with the passage of limited express exceptions in 1923. During the years that followed, common law developments and judicial decisions somewhat expanded the short list of exceptions, particularly with regard to dangerous properties. The result was a complex and uncertain collection of exceptions and exceptions to exceptions that produced varying outcomes even among similar cases.
Tort Claims ActIn 1963 the California legislature passed the California Tort Claims Act, now codified in Government Code 815 et. seq., to level the playing field. The comprehensive law eliminated most of the previous body of law with regard to governmental immunity and replaced it with a unified set of requirements that every potential plaintiff must follow before suing a public entity. Principal among the new regulations was a requirement that an injured party file an official claim with the entity in question no longer than six months after learning of the injury. Only after an agency denied that claim, either in whole or in part, could a person continue with a traditional lawsuit against the government.
What kind of lawsuits qualify?The Tort Claims Act also specifically defined the circumstances under which a governmental entity could be held liable for personal injury. Specifically, the following five elements must generally be present.
- The injury must occur on public property
- The property must be dangerous
- The risk of injury must be reasonably foreseeable
- The dangerous condition must have been created by the negligence of a government employee acting within the scope of employment or the agency must have had reasonable notice of the danger and time to correct it.