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Can a government agency be sued for its torts?

News media in the Los Angeles area frequently carry reports of automobile and truck accidents that involve vehicles owned and operated by the state, the county or the city. For example, a recent news story involved a county police car and a pedestrian fatality. Such an incident raises the question whether and under what circumstances may a government agency be sued when one of its employees may have been at fault for a truck or car crash.

When the English common law first migrated to America, courts here followed the English law of torts (personal injuries) with little variation. One important principle that was adopted was the rule of "sovereign immunity." English courts ruled that no one could sue the government because the government was an extension of the monarch, and the monarch was immune from suit. Therefore, the government was immune. With the coming of the industrial age, the unfairness of this rule caused virtually states, including California, to adopt limited waivers of sovereign immunity.

Under California law, the government is generally immune from suit, but the law also creates this important exception: "A public entity is liable for injury proximately caused by an act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment if the act or omission would, apart from this section, have given rise to a cause of action against that employee or his personal representative." The phrase "public entity" has the effect of extending the waiver of sovereign immunity to cities, counties and most other public agencies.

Commencing a claim for damages against a public agency requires compliance with a number of technical requirements, including the giving of timely notice of the claim and naming the proper parties. Perhaps the most important aspect of making such a claim is showing that the negligent act was performed by the employee while acting within the scope of his employment. Anyone who has been injured or has a loved one who has been killed in an accident involving a government employee will benefit from consulting an attorney who specializes in accident daces for an evaluation of the case and an estimate of the chances of recovering damages.

Source: California Government Code §815-818.9, accessed on Oct. 18, 2015

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