Emma Zhou was struck by a tree branch in Washington Square Park, San Francisco on August 12. In the three weeks since the accident, the family has attempted to move forward – but the process has not been easy. While watching her children play in the park, a 100-pound tree branch belonging to a city-maintained Canary Island pine tree fell 50 feet, hitting Ms. Zhou squarely in the head. The branch fractured her skull and broke her spine. Her doctors believe she will require at least sixteen months of rehabilitation and (even then) will not walk again.
City “Investigates” Why Branch Fell from Healthy Tree
Ms. Zhou’s medical costs (as well as the expenses and frustration) of her family continue to mount but, despite the fact that the tree was maintained by the City of San Francisco, the city has not come forward with an offer to assist her at this time. Instead, the city has claimed it is “investigating” the matter, attempting to determine how a “healthy” tree last inspected in 2010 would lose a branch in such a manner.
When a Government Agency is the Negligent Defendant
If the tree was privately maintained, the Zhou family could file a personal injury lawsuit against the tree’s owner if the individual had negligently maintained the tree and this contributed to the branch’s failure. However, longstanding legal principles prohibit private citizens from bringing suit against a local, state, or national government or any of its employees, except where the government consents to allowing itself to be sued. California’s adoption of its Tort Claims Act is the vehicle whereby California allowed itself (and its local governments) to be sued for negligence, but only after certain conditions are met:
- First, the injured party must provide notice of the injury incident and file a claim with the appropriate government agency. The notice and claim must contain the information specified in the Tort Claims Act and must be filed within six months of the date the injury accident occurred.
- Next, the government will have 45 days from the date the claim is filed (or placed in the mailbox, in the case of a claim against a local government) to respond to your claim by either accepting the claim, rejecting the claim, or offering a compromise.
- If the claim is rejected in whole or in part, you would then have six months to file a lawsuit in court (or two years, if the governing body of the level of government to which you delivered your claim failed to notify you of its decision to reject your claim).
Not Following California’s Tort Claims Act Could Derail Your Suit
An injury plaintiff like Ms. Zhou would need to follow the Tort Claims Act precisely if she decided to file a claim against the City of San Francisco. Failing to file a claim on time, or filing a claim that does not comport with the requirements of the Tort Claims Act, is sufficient grounds for the government to reject your claim – leaving you without any legal recourse.