Suing Uncle Sam: When the Government is Negligent

Florida is home to over 20 military bases and many VA hospitals and other federal facilities. Every year, many people are injured due to the negligence of federal employees and contractors. When it comes to lawsuits, however, there are many misconceptions. Some people believe that you cannot sue the federal government. Others have heard terms like sovereign immunity and believe the government is immune from civil actions. However, although suing the federal government presents certain unique challenges, it is not impossible. There is a law known as the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which allows individuals to bring civil actions against the government for injuries sustained in government facilities or while under the care and treatment of federal employees.

What is the FTCA?

Technically the federal government is immune from liability. Nevertheless, the FTCA is a limited waiver to this rule. First, it only applies to conduct that could otherwise be performed by an individual. So, uniquely governmental conduct, such as elections and regulatory actions, is not contemplated. However, if a person is injured in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, that person could bring an action. After all, a private citizen could otherwise perform those healthcare services.

How long do I have to bring a lawsuit?

Like any civil action, federal claims have a statute of limitations governing the deadline for filing a lawsuit. Since this is statutory, it is very strict; it is almost never waived. In the case of federal tort claims against the government, the general rule is 2 years. That means you have 2 years from the date of the injury to file your claim. However, there are exceptions to this rule that require an attorney to carefully weigh the potential legal questions at issue. If there is any doubt about when the injury occurred or whether the 2-year rule applies, it is absolutely imperative to consult a personal injury attorney right away.

How do I file a claim under FTCA?

Again, this is a fairly complex question, but in general one files a specific government form notifying the relevant agency of the claim. On the form, you or your attorney will describe the injuries and include reports, evidence and other information that may help the agency determine liability. There is a designated group or department in every agency that is responsible for investigating claims. For instance, claims against the Department of Veterans Affairs are filed with the Office of General Counsel.

By law, you must give the agency 6 months to investigate the claim and render a decision. If the agency denies the claim, some agencies have an internal appeals process that you must exhaust. Others do not. Once all measures are exhausted with the agency and no satisfactory result is achieved, you are permitted to file a formal civil lawsuit in the relevant federal district court.

How much can I receive?

Agencies can approve settlements up to $200,000 without further federal approval. For more than that, they require approval of the Department of Justice. There is, however, a unique element of these cases that many people are unaware of when they file. You cannot receive more than you demand. In a typical lawsuit, if you asked for $10,000, a court or jury could award more. On the contrary, with federal claims, if you claim $10,000, that is the most the agency will approve, regardless of later changes or additional evidence of damages. So, it is best to claim far more than what is actually expected and allow your attorney to negotiate a proper settlement based on the facts of the case.

Ultimately, the FTCA offers a potential for recovering damages from the federal government. The process is very complex, and the hiring of an experienced Florida injury lawyer at the Romero Law Firm is highly recommended.

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