Injury Claims Against City & County of San Francisco

WHITEBOARD WEDNESDAY (August 23, 2017): Suing a governmental entity like the City & County of San Francisco (CCSF) isn’t as simple as suing a private business or citizen, but if you have been injured as a result of CCSF’s negligence (or a CCSF employee’s negligence) you are entitled to fair compensation all the same. In this week’s #WhiteboardWednesday, we discuss the logistics of bringing a personal injury claim again CCSF.


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Video Transcription

Hi, Matt Quinlan here. Welcome to this week’s edition of #WhiteboardWednesday, where we tackle real-life issues that are our clients face and answer questions that we get from people that call our office. This week we’re gonna be talking about bringing injury claims against the city and county of San Francisco.

A lot of the things I’m gonna be talking about today apply to most governmental entities on the state level. But for purposes of this particular video, I’m gonna stick with bringing claims against the city and county of San Francisco. That involves MUNI. It would involve some sort of trip and fall in the city somewhere, on the sidewalks for example, where the city was responsible. If you became injured in a government building of some kind. If a government employee was out driving around and got an accident with you, and so forth. Lots of different ways where the city and county of San Francisco, can be the defendant in a particular action. And today am gonna talk about how you go about handling those things, they are quite different than a regular case against just a citizen or a business entity that is not a governmental entity. And so I wanted to create a “Whiteboard Wednesday”, to share with you kinds of the ins and outs of how you go about dealing with something like that. So let’s get started.

Statute of Limitations For Claims Against CCSF (and all CA Governmental Agencies)

First things first, the statute of limitations. So in California, a personal injury claimant has typically two years from the date of the accident or the date that they discovered that they were injured, to bring a claim. All right? But if you’re dealing with a governmental agency, you don’t get two years. You only have six months. Okay, so that happens really fast. Obviously that’s been put in place by the legislature to protect governmental entities. Imagine that. But it happens really quickly, and people don’t know it. They know about the two years often times, they don’t know about the six months. But you only have six months from the date of the accident to bring a governmental claim, which is a proper claim form that you can fill out. I’ll leave a link below in the description of this video. And I’ll also leave it in the blog post that this video will also be a part of
, so you can see it and you can get an idea what you’re doing. But it’s just a proper claim form, it’s relatively simple. You don’t necessarily have to be a lawyer to fill it out. Although I certainly would recommend you get a lawyer to do it for you. We typically do it for most of our clients. But it is the type of thing that you can do it yourself. And if you’re getting close to the six month statute of limitations, you most certainly want to do that. Because if six months goes by and you haven’t filed a government claim, you’re probably gonna to be completely out of luck. And there’s nothing that you can do, or any lawyer can do to resurrect your statute and get your claim into a place where it’s viable again. So be very mindful of that six months, much sooner than the two years.

Now, once you get your claim filed within six months of the accident date, the city and county of San Francisco has 45 days to reject your claim. So that’s the amount of time that they have to look into it, investigate it. And I would say 90% of the time, they just reject claims. All right? That’s what they do, especially if you’re not represented. They wanna force you to kind of proveit, become somewhat of a threat to them. And so they’re gonna reject them out of hand, most of the time. But occasionally when a lawyer’s involved, you’ll get a phone call from the city, and they’ll say, “Look,” you know, “let’s talk settlement. Let’s talk about getting this thing resolved.” And we’ve had some success, we deal with the city a lot. Our office is in San Francisco obviously, so a lot of the cases we find ourselves handling involve The City. And so we have had quite a bit of success working with the City Attorney’s Office on some of these claims, without them rejecting it. But I would still say for the most part, they’re gonna probably reject the claim. Forty-five days to do it.

If they do reject your claim within 45 days, you have six months from the date that they rejected it to file a proper lawsuit. Okay? And then everything kind of takes a normal form. They end up just being another defendant .There’s no special rules or tricks or requirements that you have to sue the city, once you kind of jumped through the hoops of the government claim format that they put out there for you. So once they reject, assuming they do, you have six months from the date of that rejection to file a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court.

If they don’t reject it in a timely fashion, timely’s 45 days, well then you have two years of time to file a proper lawsuit from the date of the original accident. Okay? So that’s kinda how it works. Now most of the time they’re gonna be on top of it, they’re gonna reject it, and you can count out six months from there. But if you never hear back from them, right, or for some reason they’re investigating it and you have a phone call with them or your lawyer does, and they never formally reject it in writing. And 45 days passes, well suddenly now you have two years from the date of the accident. So that’s kind of a good situation when it happens, it’s somewhat rare. But that’s the process of dealing with your statute of limitations when it comes to the city and county of San Francisco.

Working with CCSF Claims Adjusters

Now once you bring your claim and you have filed it, you’re gonna be dealing with a claims adjuster that works in the City Attorney’s Office. They’re very much like claims adjusters that work at private insurance companies. What they wanna get from you is a demand letter, okay, which is gonna describe what happened. You’re gonna include, or your lawyer will include, all the facts of the case. Pictures, your medical records, your medical bills, wage loss proof, your theory of liability, etc. And the claims adjuster will work with the city attorney and try to figure out if it’s something that they want to attempt to settle with you without litigation, or if it’s something that they are gonna require that you file a lawsuit on. These are very nice people at the City Attorney’s Office. Worked with lots of them, they’re reasonable folks. They are they hardworking, they are public servants, and I appreciate them. And they do a really good job for the most part. And I would argue that more times than not, that they’re quite fair given the circumstances.

Another kind of thing to keep in mind is I guess is, MUNI buses. A lot of the cases we handle involving the city and county of San Francisco, are Muni accidents. All right, whether you’re on the bus, you’re in a car, you’re a pedestrian, you’re a bicyclist. And there’s video everywhere, every Muni bus has I think three cameras on it at all times if they’re working properly. So there are lots of video and GPS devices these days on government vehicles. Okay? And government buildings have video as well. So there’s almost always video and GPS available. Now the folks at City Hall, they are not going to encourage you to ask for the video. They are not gonna tell you about the video. They’re not gonna hint that there’s a video. As a matter of fact, I have seen documentation that was produced in proper discovery that encourages the folks that answer the phone not to mention the fact that video might exist or that GPS might exist. So the goal obviously is to keep you from getting that. Right? So the video is gonna speak for itself. GPS can often times be very useful, and I’ve used it successfully against the city on behalf of my clients. So getting this stuff is important. So be aware that it probably exists, be aware that they’re not gonna to keep it for you. All right? You have to ask for it. The video on these buses overwrites itself every about three days. Okay? And it’s actually a third party of that handles the Muni videos. But if nothing triggers this outside third party to keep the video, it’ll be overwritten. All right? So the Muni driver or dispatch may not trigger that by telling them to keep it because something happened, especially if it wasn’t something really obvious. And if you don’t ask for it, it could be long gone. So be aware of video and GPS, it can be really valuable. Obviously that’s often at times the evidence and the proof you need to prove your case.

Filing a Lawsuit Against CCSF

If you can’t get the case settled with the City Attorney’s Office prior to the rejection or having to file a lawsuit…and I would say from my experience, it’s probably maybe a 50/50 deal depending on the quality of the case, whether or not they’re gonna be willing to settle for a fair amount. And if they’re not, then you find yourself suing the city and county and San Francisco as a normal defendant. Right? So now you’re just in the validation process. And the fact that they are a governmental entity does not matter anymore for kind of procedural purposes. It does have some effect ultimately with how a jury might deal with it, and the budgetary concerns, and what kind of settlement you might get. But you handle it just like you’d handle it with a lawsuit against anyone else. You go through the discovery process. The opposing lawyer on the other side is the City Attorney, as opposed to some lawyer that the insurance company has hired. And the process is the same. Also very hard working people, lawyers at the City Attorney’s Office, and they do a good job as well. So you do normal discovery, okay, and you work your way up. Oftentimes you can get the case settled after you do discovery. You do dispositions, and you answer questions, and you get documents, and you know, you work it out normally and you find yourself in a position to settle the case without the need for trial.

The only thing that I would add here, which I alluded to a little bit, are jury concerns and budgetary concerns. So listen, if you end up at trial, right, you’re in front of a jury of your peers…now these people live in San Francisco, and you are suing the city of San Francisco, and most people love San Francisco. And they understand, even though it’s not something that they’re supposed to consider, that any money they get to you with a jury award is gonna come out of the city budget. Which means less money for things to improve the city. Right? It’s their tax money, that type of thing. So people are not inclined to get very carried away with claims against the city. And that kinda deflates the value of some of these personal injury cases, because you don’t have the benefit of riling up a jury. You can get them riled up in some circumstances, but just in general, they’re not gonna to get carried away. Sticking it to their own city, who is gonna have to pay you with the budget that they could be using to make the city better. So that’s something you have to, you have to be aware of when you’re bringing these claims. And it causes you to be maybe a little extra reasonable when you’re dealing with the city. Because you know ultimately when you have your day court, it might not have the upside that it would if the defendant was just a regular ‘ol third party and not the city and county. 

Settlement Process With CCSF

Now if you are able to reach a settlement, which is great, it happens most of the time, at some point, the process can be very burdensome. And it’s very slow. All right?
Typically when you’re not dealing with the governments, you settle the case, they give you a release, you get it done, and you’ve got your money in a week or two. Now with the city, they have to get through this long process. All right? So the City Attorney’s Office agrees to settle the case with you. Whether it be at this point with the claims adjuster, or after some litigation goes on, they agree to settle the case. Now the City Attorney has to recommend to the powers that be in the city, the Board of Supervisors, various committees and that type of thing, that they settle this claim that exposes the city. And so you have to get board and committee approval. Depending on the type of case, there are also various committees that also must approve this before it can go to the Board of Supervisors.

Now I’ll tell you, to me and in my experience throughout my career, this is a rubber stamp process. Okay? If City Attorney says, “We should settle this case.” it gets settled. They very, very rarely would disagree with the City Attorney because the Board of Supervisors, they’re not the lawyers, they’re not in the business of trying to assess risk from litigation. So they do take the advice of the City Attorney. So this right here once, you kinda reach a settlement, it’s probably gonna happen. I mean, 99% of the time it’s gonna go through, but it just takes the time to go through all this process. So you have to be patient, it can be very frustrating. And the process is usually about one to three months before you actually end up getting your check. It probably averages right about to one month, it’ll be pretty lightning-fast for the city to get your check. And you would have to time it up just right for the next board meeting, which is every two weeks and so forth.

So anyway, those are kind of the things that I deal with as a personal injury lawyer when I am bringing in a claim against the city and county of San Francisco on my clients behalf. I hope some of that information’s useful to you. I hope you learned something. I certainly appreciate you watching, and I look forward to seeing you next week again on “Whiteboard Wednesday.”