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Government Claims Act in California : An Overview

Posted by Alan Fassonaki | May 05, 2023

I. Introduction

Two distinct interpretations—one broad and the other narrow—are available for the Government Claims Act (Govt C 810-996.6). Liability is to be interpreted broadly, and immunity is to be interpreted narrowly. The purpose of the stringent interpretation is to limit governmental liability to clearly defined situations. Unless the Act's provisions are strictly met, immunities are applied liberally. These interpretations illustrate opposing viewpoints on the historical division exemplified by Muskopf v. Corning Hosp. Dist. (1961) 55 C2d 211 and the Government Claims Act.  According to the provisions being interpreted and the particular facts of a case, some provisions may be considered widely and others narrowly, which could affect how the Act is interpreted.

II. Historical Overview

The Government Claims Act (Govt C §§810–996.6) is a California law that governs tort claims against governmental entities. This law modified a century of statutory and common law on the subject, and understanding its evolution can help practitioners interpret some of its provisions.

Before the Government Claims Act, governmental entities were generally immune from tort liability, except when constitutional or statutory law specifically provided otherwise. The immunity doctrine extended only to tort damages, while public entities were traditionally liable for breach of contract to the same extent as private individuals.

Exceptions to governmental tort immunity existed before the Act, including the proprietary activities exception and the theory of nuisance. The legislature also enacted several provisions consenting to governmental tort liability, such as legislation making public agencies liable for negligent operation of motor vehicles, and making cities, counties, and school districts liable for dangerous or defective conditions of public property.

Overall, the evolution of governmental immunity and liability in California has been complex and subject to change, with different exceptions and provisions being introduced and modified over time.

III. Liability of Public Entities and their Employees

Under the Government Claims Act, public employees are held liable for their actions and omissions to the same extent as private individuals, except for immunities provided by statute. Public employees can use the same defenses available to private individuals. Public entities must defend and indemnify their employees, subject to certain qualifications, such as the act or omission occurring within the scope of employment.

Except for employee liability, a public entity is not liable for its breach of a common law duty. However, it may be liable for common law torts of its employees through vicarious liability, which is one of the four possible avenues to statutory liability against a public entity. Other avenues include liability for independent contractor's act or omission, liability for breach of mandatory duty imposed by enactment, and dangerous condition liability.

i. Immunities and Defenses

The Government Claims Act provides immunities and defenses for public entities and employees. Public entity statutory liability is subject to any applicable statutory immunity, except when a statute indicates otherwise. Specific immunities within the Act include those related to dangerous conditions, police and correctional activities, fire protection, medical and public health activities, tax laws, use of pesticides, and abatement of an impending peril from earth movement. The Act's immunities also shield public entities from vicarious liability under certain circumstances. These immunities have antecedents in pre-Act statutory and common law.

Defenses asserted by public entities have the same degree of validity and weight as when asserted by private defendants, and unless there is a statutory exception, defenses available to a private person are available to the public entity. Examples of defenses available to public entities include comparative negligence, imputed negligence, limitation on recovery of emotional distress, and exculpatory clauses and releases. However, certain defenses such as joint liability and contribution between private tortfeasors are largely supplanted in joint powers agreements by Govt C §§895–895.8.

IV. Differing Interpretations of the Act

There are two distinct interpretations of the Government Claims Act (Govt C 810-996.6), one of which is broad and the other restrictive. Liability is to be interpreted widely and immunity narrowly under the broad interpretation. The purpose of the rigorous interpretation is to limit governmental liability to clearly defined situations, and immunities are used liberally unless the Act's provisions are strictly met. These interpretations illustrate the opposing viewpoints on the historical division exemplified by Muskopf v. Corning Hospital District (1961) 55 C2d 211 and the Government Claims Act.  As some provisions may be construed broadly and others narrowly, depending on their intent and the particular facts of a case, the interpretation of the Act may vary depending on the provisions being interpreted.

V. Conclusion

The Government Claims Act is a statutory instrument that sets out the liabilities and immunities applied to and the defenses available to government entities and their employees. While the purpose of the Act was to clearly establish the bounds of liability that public entities and their employees are subject to, the courts have generally been split into two differing interpretations of the act, one interpreting liability broadly while the other interpreting the immunities broadly. The application of the Act to a specific case can best be predicted by a knowledgeable attorney that is able to create convincing interpretations to suit the present case and use case law to determine how the courts may apply the Act given the circumstances. 

About the Author

Alan Fassonaki

What inspired me to practice personal injury law? I was 9 and imagining the win. My mother was driving me to my basketball game. My older sister came along to support me. While on the road, I thought about practice and replayed our team's game-plan in my mind. Suddenly, I hea...

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