Under the English common law, a person could not sue the state for a wrong committed against the person. The theory was that “the King could do no wrong,” a sweeping government immunity that was carried over into our American legal system and continues to affect plaintiffs’ rights to this day.
In 1969, the Texas Legislature enacted the Tort Claims Act, which severely restricts a victim’s ability to sue cities, counties and other units of government, and caps damages in the remaining situations plaintiffs can sue their government for bad behavior.
What is the Tort Claims Act?
The Tort Claims Act places strict limits on the damages injured citizens can recover, even when their injuries are catastrophic. If you are maimed, paralyzed or killed by the negligence of a VIA bus driver, for instance, the agency’s liability is capped at $100,000 – an unreasonable sum that fails to adequately compensate victims and their families. It’s difficult to put a value on the life a person, but $100,000 is certainly not enough. A serious injury could easily result in medical bills well over $100,000, leaving no compensation for long-term care and treatment, disfigurement, or mental anguish.
The cap not only doesn’t discourage negligent behavior, it encourages it. Many VIA bus accidents were at least partly the result of drivers who were fatigued, texting, and/or speeding – behavior that the government agency must be motivated to correct. Unfortunately, the math is simple: If an agency perceives that it’s cheaper to pay a few low penalties than to implement a comprehensive employee training and disciplinary program, which are they most likely to do? Especially in this era of harsh anti-government rhetoric and radical federal and state budget cuts.
The cap on damages also emboldens these governmental units not to settle. Why settle a case for $100,000 if that’s your maximum exposure? A jury could award $3 million to a plaintiff and VIA would still only be liable for $100,000. Cases settle based on risk. If there is no risk of paying a judgment above the cap, settlement is less likely. This negative incentive results in unnecessary costly and time-consuming litigation.
The Tort Claims Act also places other legal hurdles in the way of valid claims. If you are injured in an accident involving a police officer, a VIA bus driver, or the driver of a San Antonio Water System or CPS Energy vehicle, you must give notice of the incident, the time and place, and the damages claimed within six months of the day that the accident occurred. If you fail to provide proper legal notice you could forfeit what would otherwise be valid legal rights. A plaintiff injured by an individual in the private sector, on the other hand, has up to two years to file suit.
The Tort Claims Act is almost 45 years old. It’s time for the Legislature to review the reasonableness and adequacy of the limits it places on our legal system. Payments for injured victims come from public funds, but society as a whole bears the cost of irresponsible governmental behavior – both in tangible expenses, like public support for victims who can’t return to work or whose medical bills push them into the welfare system, and in the loss of a government that must hold itself to standards as high as any private company.
If you have suffered life-changing injuries through the negligence of the City, County or VIA, together we can hold them accountable. Call the Law Offices of Maloney & Campolo for a free case review (210) 922-2200