Navigating a car accident claim can be stressful and overwhelming. After an accident with a government vehicle, you may worry that the process is going to be even more difficult. If so, your instinct is correct. These types of claims do need to be handled differently. For example, the deadline to file a claim can be much shorter.
By learning a bit about the process and what is considered a government vehicle, you can avoid pitfalls and ensure you are on track to being properly compensated for your injuries and vehicle damage.
Claims After a Car Accident with a Government Vehicle Can Be Tricky to Navigate
There are entirely different laws for making a claim when a government vehicle is involved in a car accident rather than a private citizen’s vehicle. These laws apply to claims against any government entity – federal, state, county, or city. If the other driver is in a government vehicle, then the federal or state Tort Claims Act applies, and a different and more complicated claims process must be followed.
How Are Car Accident Claims Against the Government Different?
Normally, after a car accident where the other driver is at fault, you would start by trying to negotiate a settlement with the other driver’s insurance. If that doesn’t work, you can file a lawsuit against the other driver. Although this process is complicated and often best handled with the help of an attorney, you may be at least somewhat familiar with how it works.
Car wreck claims against the government are controlled by a different set of laws and have different rules. Before any lawsuit can be filed, you must make a written claim to the government. That claim has to be handled in a precise manner using specific forms and must include exactly the right information. If it is not filed within the deadline or if it is missing required information, your claim will be rejected. In that case, you may never be compensated for your injuries and damages.
Deadline to File a Car Accident Claim Against the Government
One of the biggest pitfalls to filing a car accident claim against the government is the statute of limitations or deadline to file a claim.
In California (and in many other states), the deadline to file an accident claim against the government is a lot shorter than the deadline to file a lawsuit in a typical car accident case. Usually, you have two years after the accident to file a lawsuit in court. However, if a government vehicle was involved, you have only six months to file an initial claim with the government or your claim will be waived. In that case, you will never receive any compensation.
While receiving treatment and recovering from injuries, six months can fly by much more quickly than you might think. You really must be prepared to act quickly in these cases.
Are There Limits to the Amount You Can Claim?
In a typical car accident claim, your recovery is capped by the other driver’s policy limits. When the other driver is in a government vehicle, the total amount you can recover for your injuries and damages is limited instead by federal and state law.
The Federal Tort Claims Act allows each state to decide on a total damage cap. Many states have placed limits on the amount you can receive in compensation, but California is not one of those states. However, the Federal Tort Claims Act does still include some limitations.
Your total award is generally limited to the amount you request in your initial claim, with some exceptions. This is another reason it is so important to handle this claim properly from the beginning. In addition, you typically cannot recover attorney’s fees or make a claim for punitive damages.
What is Considered a Government Vehicle?
To figure out whether you must follow this more complicated claims process and its shorter deadlines, the first question must be, is the other vehicle actually a government vehicle?
A government vehicle is any vehicle owned or leased by the federal government or by any state, county, or city government. It includes:
- Police cars
- U.S. Postal Service vehicles
- City buses
- City trucks
- Military tanks and convoy vehicles
- Federal agency fleet vehicles
What About Government Employees Who are Either Off the Clock or in Their Personal Vehicle?
If they are both off the clock and in a personal vehicle, then your claim will need to be made against their personal insurance and none of this will apply.
If the other driver is off the clock, but in a government vehicle, then the Tort Claims Act will likely still apply. Similarly, if a government employee is on the job, but in a personal vehicle, the Tort Claims Act will probably still apply. However, these situations can be even trickier than other claims involving government vehicles.
Two Categories of Government Vehicle Accidents
Your car accident with a government vehicle can fall into two categories, depending on what activity the government employee was engaged in at the time. They might be performing a routine task, such as delivering mail, or they could be responding to an emergency, like when an ambulance is rushing to the scene of an injury. In either situation, the government can be held liable if its employee caused the accident, but there are additional legal complications when they are responding to an emergency.
Emergency vehicles are exempt from following general traffic laws, such as obeying traffic lights and speed limits, while responding to an emergency as long as they have their siren and lights activated. In those circumstances, they will not be held liable simply because they were speeding. However, the law still requires them to drive in a way that does not endanger the safety of others on the road. If the driver was reckless or negligent, with a properly handled claim, the government can still be held responsible.
You may be curious, why are there special laws in place for car accident claims involving government vehicles? It is because of sovereign immunity.
Sovereign immunity, or government immunity, is a principle of United States law that says the government cannot be sued except in circumstances where it has given specific permission allowing it to be sued. As a rule, the government is immune from any lawsuit, and a lawsuit against it will be immediately kicked out of court. This immunity also applies to government employees, so long as they are acting in the scope of their duties.
The only way the government can be sued is if specific exceptions have been made by law. One example of this is the Tort Claims Act. The Tort Claims Act allows government entities to be liable (and be sued) for injuries or damages caused by accidental or intentional acts. This includes car accidents. The federal government and all 50 states each have their own Tort Claims Act in place.
The government and its employees are therefore immune from being held liable for a car accident under the normal negligence laws, but you can make claims against the government under the appropriate federal or state Tort Claims Act. This also means that you cannot pursue a claim against the driver and their insurance. You can only make a claim against the government under the Tort Claims Act.
Making Sure You Are Covered After a Car Accident with a Government Vehicle
Car accidents and insurance claims are bad enough at the best of times. When a government vehicle is involved, it can be even more intimidating. Sovereign immunity and making claims under the Tort Claims Act can add extra complications. But it is not as bad as it seems.
You still deserve compensation for your injuries, and you should still be able to pursue a claim. In fact, sometimes it can be helpful. Often, individual drivers have low insurance policies that are quickly maxed out by medical bills. Claims against the government may have much higher limits or even no limits, depending on the state.
It is simply important to act quickly, make sure you meet your deadlines, and if necessary, get some assistance pursuing your claim.
If you or someone you love has been injured in a car accident with a government vehicle, the accident attorneys at Adamson Ahdoot LLP may be able to help. Call (800) 310-1606 or contact us for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation.