Following up on last week’s initial post on government tort liability, this article highlights major differences between ordinary civil suits against people and corporations, and civil suits against the State or its political subdivisions, such as cities and counties.
#1. You must file a “notice of tort claim” first, then wait 90 days before filing any lawsuit
Prior to filing a lawsuit against the state or any subdivision (county, municipality, school board, etc.), you must first file a Notice of Tort Claim. After you file your Notice of Tort Claim, that governmental body has 90 days to review your claim, and either choose to pay it or deny it. You cannot file suit until the 90 days has run or the claim has been denied.
The Notice of Tort Claim is really nothing other than a letter to the government agency informing them about the injury/damage, the date and time, brief description of the facts/circumstances, the government entity/agent involved, and the amount of compensation sought. If the claim is against the State of Oklahoma, there is a special office that handles all state claims. If the claim is against a city or county, then you should send the claim to the clerk of that entity (i.e. the City Clerk, County Clerk, etc.).
Please note, that when handling claims involving serious injuries or serious damage to property, I would highly caution against doing it on your own and I would strongly encourage you to consult an attorney prior to making any claim. The reason is that you want to make sure to identify all possible damage and especially seek the maximum compensation to which you may be entitled. Read here for a detailed explanation of why this is so important.
You need to act quickly when filing your tort claim in Oklahoma
In many types of lawsuits for injuries and property damage, the statute of limitations is 2 years. That means you can wait up to 2 years after the damage was caused before filing a lawsuit. This for several reasons. One, it allows you to fully investigate what happened and who is responsible. That way you know who to actually sue. This can be much more complicated that it might appear when corporations are involved, as there may be a complex maze of corporation ownership and/or insurance coverage. Second, it allows the parties plenty of time to negotiate and try to settle before resorting to suing in court.
However, in cases involving government liability, you only have 1 year to file your Notice of Tort Claim with the government agency responsible. You then must wait 90 days for that to respond (or not respond) before you can file your lawsuit. Your lawsuit must be filed within 6 months after the ninety-day claim period has run. This is a weird multi-tier process, but that’s just how it works if you want to successfully sue the government in Oklahoma.
#3. Caps on Damages
There are caps on the amount of damages (money) you can recover for both property damage and personal injury. These caps specify exactly how much you can recover, for example, if a medical intern at OU Hospital is the one who causes the damage. Generally, most claims are limited to $175,000, per incident, and sometimes higher or lower. I would recommend scheduling an appointment if you have deeper questions on this subject.
Unfortunately, no matter how damaged your house is because of a sewer back-up, the most you can collect from your City is $25,000. That’s the cap on property damage. If the garbage man wrecks your car, you better hope the repairs or costs to replace don’t exceed $25,000. Because you won’t be able to get any more, and expect them to fight you on collecting even the capped amount.
#4. No Punitive Damages
The Statute explicitly bars any person from recovering punitive damages against the government. This is huge difference between ordinary civil law that governs persons and corporations. Ordinarily, you can recover punitive damages when a person or corporation’s conduct is so outrageous and extreme nature and has reckless disregard for a person’s life and rights.
How does this affect you? It means that no matter how outrageous or reckless the police officer was, or how poorly trained he was by his supervisors, you can not recover additional damages for the purpose of punishing the city or state agency that employed such officer.