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Injured by the Government? Things to Remember

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The aftermath of an auto accident is always a stressful time, particularly if you've been injured. At the same time that you are worrying about your injuries, seeing doctors, trying to get your car fixed (or worse, having to get a new car), and arranging alternative transportation, you have to deal with an insurance company to figure out who will be paying for it all. While this can be tricky when you are in an accident with a private citizen or business, there are even more pitfalls if you are in an accident with a government vehicle like a police car, ambulance, or city bus.

One thing to remember is that there are particular obstacles to bringing a personal injury or property damage claim against a government entity. The federal government, state governments, and most local governments are protected by a doctrine known as "sovereign immunity." Sovereign immunity has its roots in the medieval English common-law maxim of rex non potest peccare, or "the King can do no wrong." It was reasoned that no one could sue the King in his own courts without his consent because the King was the "fountain of justice" from whom all legal rights flowed.

While we in America have not had a king since 1776, American courts have adopted the doctrine of sovereign immunity since the early days of our Republic. Courts have advanced modern justifications for this feudal principle, such as protecting the "public fisc" from private claims, protection of the government from distraction, and the "presumption that governments will do justice to their citizens." Regardless of the merits of these justifications, the result is that one cannot sue the federal government without the consent of Congress, and one cannot sue a state government without the consent of that state's legislature. Further, the legislature is largely free to place essentially whatever conditions on this consent it deems fit.

In Texas, the state legislature has granted its consent to be sued for personal injury or property damage through the Texas Tort Claims Act, or "TTCA." Unfortunately for claimants, Texas's waiver of sovereign immunity is significantly narrower and subject to more conditions than that of most other states. This means that it is much more difficult to sue the state, a state agency, or a county or city in Texas than in many other states.

First, the government can only be sued for injuries caused by a government employee's "operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment," or "a condition or use of tangible personal or real property." For example, courts often hold that the government is immune to suit in medical malpractice cases (such as against a county or university hospital) arising from a doctor's misdiagnosis of an illness, because a misdiagnosis often does not result from the "use of tangible personal or real property."

Second, Texas has extended its sovereign immunity to cover its individual employees. If you sue a government employee, rather than the government itself, for his or her actions within the scope of their employment, the employee can require you to sue the government instead. He or she can do this even if your claim is one for which the government has not waived sovereign immunity, such as for an intentional tort. The result is that you are forced to replace the employee with the government, and then the government may have your case dismissed.

Third, Texas has placed caps on damages that can be awarded against the government. For example, regardless of how seriously you might have been injured by the negligence of a city employee, or even if you are killed, the city usually cannot be held liable for more than $250,000 in damages.

Finally, Texas has placed very strict "notice" conditions on claimants. While you generally have two years after an accident to file a personal injury suit in Texas, you must give the government notice of your claim within six months, or your claim will be barred. If your claim is against a city, then the city's charter or ordinances can prescribe an even shorter deadline: for example, the deadline for providing notice to the City of Houston of a claim is only 90 days from the accident, and the charter requires much more detailed notice than is required against the state government.

These are only some of the pitfalls of bringing a claim against the government. If you are injured or your property is damaged by the negligence of a federal, state, or local government employee, and you wish to seek compensation, it is crucial that you consult a qualified attorney.

If you or someone you know has been injured in an accident with a government vehicle or on government property, contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584.

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