It may not be the most riveting case out of the California Supreme Court this year, but personal injury practitioners will want to be familiar with Dicampli-Mintz v. County of Santa Clara, (No. S194501, Dec. 6, 2012), which held that strict compliance with the express delivery provisions of the Government Claims Act is required.
In the personal injury field, knowing the requirements under the Government Claims Act for presenting a claim to a public entity is a must, as failure to do so will serve as a bar to pursuing a lawsuit against the public entity. In addition to cities and counties, school districts, and transit agencies, many hospitals and other local public agencies are public entities, and therefore if one of these is a defendant in your case, compliance with applicable statutes is required.
Government Claims Act
The Government Claims Act, which governs suits against public entities, is set forth in division 3.6 of the California Government Code.
Some of the relevant sections of the Act include:
- Section 905 requires the presentation of all claims for money or damages against local public entities.
- Local public entity includes a county, city, district, public authority, public agency, and any other political subdivision or public corporation in the State (section 900.4.)
- Claims for personal injury and property damage must be presented within six months after accrual; all other claims must be presented within a year. (section 911.2.)
- No suit for money or damages may be brought against a public entity on a cause of action for which a claim is required to be presented . . . until a written claim therefor has been presented to the public entity and has been acted upon . . . or has been deemed to have been rejected (section 945.4.)
Requirements for Delivering Government Claims
Section 915(a) provides, "A claim . . . shall be presented to a local public entity by either of the following means: (1) Delivering it to the clerk, secretary or auditor thereof. (2) Mailing it to the clerk, secretary, auditor, or to the governing body at its principal office."
Section 915(e)(1) sets forth how actual receipt may meet the presentation requirement: "A claim . . . shall be deemed to have been presented in compliance with this section even though it is not delivered or mailed as provided in this section if, within the time prescribed for presentation thereof, any of the following apply: (1) It is actually received by the clerk, secretary, auditor or board of the local public entity."
Strict Compliance Required
In Dicampli v. County of Santa Clara, Ms. Dicampli brought suit against a county hospital and two doctors, following surgery at Valley Medical Center, a hospital owned by the County of Santa Clara. An emergency tomography disclosed that her "left iliac artery" was "completely interrupted" during the procedure.
Her attorney prepared a letter giving notice of her claim for medical malpractice pursuant to Code of Procedure section 364, and the attorney personally delivered copies of the letter to an employee of the medical staffing office in the hospital's administration building. The letters were addressed to the Risk Management Department at VMC and the doctors. While the letter included a request that it be forwarded to the recipient's insurance carrier, it did not request that it be forwarded to any of the statutorily designated recipients denoted in section 915.
The letter was never personally served, presented, or mailed to the county clerk or the clerk of the board. The letter was later received by the Santa Clara County Risk Management Department three days after it was delivered to the administration building. Approximately two weeks later, an employee at the County's Risk Management Department spoke with Ms. Dicampli's counsel by telephone, and acknowledged receipt of the letter; orally opined that service on VMC required a tort claim which was late; questioned whether a tort claim was required as to the doctors and indicated that he would look into that; stated that plaintiff had an interesting case; mentioned a physical condition that put plaintiff at risk; and provided the name of the attorney handling the County's defense. He did not mention that the letter failed to satisfy section 915's delivery requirements. Ms. Dicampli never received written notice that her claim was untimely or presented to the wrong party.
Ms. Dicampli filed suit against the county three months later, and the county filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Ms. Dicampli failed to comply with the Government Claims Act, and her suit was therefore barred.
The trial court granted the county's motion for summary judgment, agreeing with the county that Ms. Dicampli failed to comply with the Government Claims Act because her claim was never presented to or received by a statutorily designated recipient as required by section 915.
The California Court of Appeal for the Sixth District reversed the lower court holding that "a claim may substantially comply with the act, notwithstanding failure to deliver or mail it to one of the specified recipients, if it is given to a person or department whose functions include the management or defense of claims against the defendant entity." In doing so, it rejected other Court of Appeal cases holding that compliance is deemed satisfied only by actual receipt by the statutorily designated persons, under section 915(e)(1).
In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal, holding that the plain language of the statute, the legislative history, and the purpose of the statute, require strict compliance with the terms of the statute. Moreover, the Court opined that any other result would be contrary to the Government Claims Act's goal of eliminating uncertainty in the claims-presentation requirements.
Thus, because Ms. Dicampli's claim was never presented to or actually received by a statutorily designated recipient, the Court of Appeal erred in concluding that Ms. Dicampli had substantially complied with the statute, and her claim must fail. "We reject this judicial expansion of the statutory requirements and affirm that a claim must satisfy the express delivery provisions language of the statute," said Justice Corrigan, writing for the Court.
Personal injury attorneys filing suit against any public entity must ensure compliance with applicable statutes. Failure to strictly follow statutory notice provisions, such as those outlined in the Government Claims Act, will likely result in dismissal of the complaint. Indeed, as the Supreme Court advised, notice is an element that must be proven by plaintiff. Many public entities have information on their websites with links to forms to use when filing a government tort claim, and information on where to serve the notice is generally also listed on the form.
Anne O'Donnell is a recovering litigator who is now currently a Senior Writer for legal professional content at Findlaw.com. She practiced for 10 years in civil litigation in San Francisco.