Special Rules for Suing a Municipality

suing a municipality

Did you know that if you have a claim against a municipality (a governmental entity, such as a city, state, town, or village), there are special rules that apply? And if you don’t follow those rules, you may jeopardize your ability to bring a lawsuit or to be compensated for your injuries or damages, regardless of how badly injured you are or how egregious the behavior of the municipality is.

Let’s go through some of the rules that might apply if you have been injured or damaged by a state or other municipality.

“Sovereign Immunity”

Sovereign immunity is an old English concept meaning the sovereign (or king) could do no wrong. As a result, sovereign immunity prevents the sovereign from being sued without its express permission.

This concept was incorporated into U.S. law on a more limited basis, and usually applies only to the U.S. federal government or to individual states and only in specific instances. If sovereign immunity applies to your claim or injury, you will be prevented from suing the municipality at all.

Often sovereign immunity applies to a governmental official performing what is known as “discretionary” duties – even if the official acts negligently, he or she may be protected from suit by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In other states, sovereign immunity is the rule for specified activities, such as operation of a motor vehicle by a state employee. In those states, if you are injured in an automobile accident as a result of negligence of a state employee in operating a motor vehicle on duty for the state, you will be unable to sue for damages.

Other states preserve sovereign immunity for dangerous conditions, such as from trees, traffic or street lights, and even streets and sidewalks. So, for example, if you are injured in a state with sovereign immunity for dangerous conditions involving trees and a rotted tree owned by the state or on state property falls on your car and causes damage, the state cannot be held responsible for paying for that damage.

Notice of Claim Requirements 

Even if sovereign immunity does not apply to your claim, many municipalities rules require you to file what is known as a “notice of claim” before you can file a lawsuit against the municipality. If you file a lawsuit without first following the notice of claim requirements, your lawsuit can be summarily dismissed.

The Notice of Claim is usually required to be in writing and served on a specific office or representative of the municipality. Many governmental entities have very specific rules about what must be included in the Notice of Claim, such as the name and address of the injured party, the date, time and location of the accident, and the reason the municipality should be held responsible. 

The time period for the filing of a notice of claim is extremely short – often within 30 days of the injury or damage. Once the Notice of Claim has been filed, in many cases, the governmental entity requires that you wait a specified period of time before filing of any lawsuit against the municipality. If you file a lawsuit too quickly after filing a Notice of Claim, your lawsuit could be dismissed.

Shorter time limits for filing

If you have made it over the first two hurdles – you are not prevented from bringing a claim due to sovereign immunity, and you have complied with any notice of claim requirements – you may not be home free yet. You must make sure that you file your lawsuit according to the municipality’s time limitations or risk dismissal.

While there are always limits on how long you can wait to bring a claim or file a lawsuit after an accident or injury occurs, these limits are often much shorter when the claim or suit is brought against a governmental entity. These time limits can be as short as a few months or less and vary from municipality to municipality. Filing suit after the time limitation will result in a dismissal.

To make things even more confusing, the rules may not apply only to the municipality or governmental entity itself, but also to an entity owned by the government (such as a state hospital or state university) or an employee of the municipality (such as a state highway worker). 

All of these special rules are why it is so important to seek the advice of a lawyer as soon as possible after you are involved in an accident or sustain injuries or damages. You may not even know that the property where you were injured or the vehicle involved in your accident was owned by a governmental entity and not a private person, and delay can mean the loss of your claim. 

A lawyer can determine whether you have a potential claim against a municipal entity and will know the steps that you must take to preserve your claim. If you have been injured in an accident, or if you think you might have a claim against a municipality, use our site to post your legal issue, and we will help find an appropriate local attorney who has both the local knowledge and the legal skills to help you. Post your legal needs now.

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Posted - 01/16/2020