Lawsuits Against Public Defendants Can Get Complicated

California injury lawsuits against public defendants can be quite complicated, from the very beginning of the claims process, all the way through to litigation - in large part because case and statutory law affords numerous protections to public defendants in the state. If you have been injured due to the fault of a public employee, department, or other public agent, then you should seek the consultation of a skilled personal injury attorney who is experienced in handling the inherent difficulties in bringing injury claims against public defendants.

Filing a Claim

To file a lawsuit against a public entity defendant in California, you have to first file a notice of claim within six months of the date of injury - this is a shorter deadline than the two year statute of limitations period that is typical of personal injury claims against private defendants. If you fail to file a notice of claim before the six month deadline passes, then you will be deemed to have abandoned your right to litigate your injury claim(s) against the public defendant.

After you file a notice of claim with the defendant public entity, the public defendant may then choose to accept the claim and responsibility for the specified damages (this is quite a rare event), or they will reject it outright. Once the claim is rejected, you are free to file a lawsuit against the defendant and begin the litigation process in earnest.

Bear in mind that - as the six month notice of claim deadline is so short - you should seek the consultation of a qualified personal injury attorney as soon as possible after the accident at-issue. It is easy to overlook legal filings when you're simply trying to get your daily life back on track (i.e., receiving adequate medical treatment, figuring out your work schedule to make up for lost time, etc.), but it's critical that you take the time to consult with an attorney. Remember, if you fail to file before the deadline passes, you will not be able to recover damages for your claims against the public defendant.

Public Defendants Are Not Always Obvious

In many personal injury accident situations, it's not clear at first who the full and final set of defendants will be. By working early on with an experienced California personal injury attorney, you can ensure that a proper investigation into the facts is conducted and that all potentially liable defendants are identified - the likes of which may include a public entity defendant.

To understand how public defendants are sometimes not obvious defendants, consider the following quick example.

Suppose that you are injured in a motor vehicle accident. At first, the case seems quite straightforward with regard to the defendant. The defendant was speeding and lost control of their vehicle, thus colliding with you. After further factual investigation, however, your attorney finds that the defendant is a public employee and was driving the vehicle within the course and scope of their employment. As such, you will likely be able to sue the public entity defendant-employer for your injuries.

Public Defendants Enjoy Legal Immunity

In California, public defendants enjoy an immunity shield that protects them from personal injury claims - with a few exceptions.

Government Code section 815(a) covers the personal injury immunity shield, and essentially protects all public entities from liability for an injury. This protection is not absolute, however. If an employee of the public entity causes the injury or injuries within the course and scope of their employment, then a plaintiff may be legally entitled to sue the public entity defendant to recover damages.

Importantly, the public employee who thereby exposes the public entity employer to liability must have - in normal circumstances - acted in such a way that he or she would have been subject to personal injury liability. For example, if a public employee collides with you in their motor vehicle due to them speeding well above the current speed limit, then they would - if they were not a public employee - have been subject to personal liability for your injuries. As such, so long as you can show that the employee was acting within the course and scope of their employment with the public entity, you will likely be able to sue the public entity defendant and recover damages for your injuries.

What Qualifies for the Course and Scope of Employment?

There are no hard and fast rules as to what type of employee conduct falls within the course and scope of employment in California. Generally speaking, the determination is made based on the total circumstances.

Let's take a quick peek at an example.

Suppose that you are driving along a public highway at a reasonable speed, and are paying attention to your surroundings. Suddenly, however, a tree in the road-adjacent tree-line collapses and falls in front of your car. You collide with the fallen tree, injuring yourself.

After consulting with an attorney who then investigates the circumstances surrounding the accident, you find that the tree was on public lands administered and maintained by a state agency. Further evidence gathering ensues, and the evidence reveals that one of the public agency's employees - a tree inspector - failed to properly inspect the tree that collapsed and caused your injuries. It could be reasonably argued that this failed inspection is within the course and scope of the inspector's employment, and as such, the negligent conduct opens up the public agency employer to personal injury liability pursuant to section 815(a).


Lawsuits against public defendants can become incredibly complex, in large part thanks to the specific rules and protections surrounding such lawsuits in California.

To set up a free consultation with an experienced California personal injury attorney, call the Law Offices of Brian O' Grady at (650) 318-6131. Attorney Brian O' Grady values open and honest communication with clients, and will address any questions or concerns you may have.