Claims Against Public Entities
The Tort Claims Act (Cal. Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.) generally requires the filing of an administrative claim for damages as a prerequisite to filing a civil action against a state/public entity.
The Tort Claims Act establishes the basic principals of public agency liability for damage claims. In addition to establishing the substantive rules for public agency damages liability, the Act also establishes procedural rules
pursuant to which a claimant may seek a damage award from a public agency. Compliance with these procedural rules operate as prerequisites to the filing of a civil action against the public agency. (See Gov. Code, §§ 945.6 and 946.) The Federal Tort Claims Act provides for similar procedural hurdles and governs claims against the Federal Government.
Most claims against public entities must be filed within 6 months, although there are some exceptions, and some situations which may result in the statute/time period being tolled, or stayed. The notion behind the Act and behind requiring an administrative claim to be filed before a lawsuit can proceed is that these requirements provide public agencies the opportunity to timely investigate claims and to reduce litigation expenses and potential judgments.
In City of Pasadena v. Sup. Ct., the Second District Court of Appeal recently affirmed a fairly stringent application of the Act's statute of limitations, holding that the date upon which a cause of action would be deemed to have accrued within the meaning of the Act is the date on which a plaintiff discovers or should reasonably have discovered that she had suffered a compensable injury. The trial court overruled the City's demurrer to a complaint, arguing that the real parties in interest failed to comply with the claim presentation requirement of the Act by not presenting their claim to the City within six months, but the Court of Appeal reversed and held that the parties' claim was time-barred because they presented their claim to the City more than 10 months after the date upon which the cause of action accrued and thus failed to comply with the claim presentation requirement. Accordingly, the court granted the City's petition for writ of mandate.
The message of City of Pasadena and similar cases is that courts will strictly enforce the claim deadlines and requirements in cases against a public entity, and claimants should act quickly to file a notice of claim so that claims do not become time barred.