A word of warning for those who want to sue the government: You’d better make sure your claim actually is delivered.
That’s the message from a new state Court of Appeals ruling which threw out a case filed against the state on behalf of three people who died in a motor vehicle crash and one man who survived.
In their unanimous decision, the judges said there are circumstances where simply putting documents into the U.S. mail system is legally sufficient.
But they said that’s not the case in litigation against the government.
Central to the issue is the fact that people can’t just sue state and local governments for damages. They first must file a formal claim within 180 days of the incident.
In essence, this claim puts the government on notice that someone is contemplating litigation.
It gives the government a chance to investigate the claim and decide to settle before suit is filed or, in the alternative, prepare for litigation.
If the government does not respond within 60 days after the claim is filed, or denies the claim outright, the person then is free to sue.
This case involves a 2004 one-car crash along U.S. Highway 93 which killed three people and resulted in serious injuries to a fourth.
The lawsuit filed against the state alleged the state was negligent in designing and maintaining the guardrail along the road.
A trial judge threw out the case, saying the plaintiffs had not filed the required notice of claim with the state Attorney General’s Office.
In the appeal, the attorney for the plaintiffs provided a certificate of service indicating that a secretary to one of the lawyers sent a notice of claim via regular mail in a sealed, postage-paid envelope addressed to the attorney general’s office. That, they said, was sufficient to comply with the law.
Appellate Judge Sheldon Weisberg, writing for the court, said there have been court decisions where a presumption can be made that a properly addressed letter, stamped and deposited with the U.S. Postal Service, will reach the person to whom it was addressed.
But Weisberg said the Arizona statute at issue here specifically says claims must be filed with the person authorized to accept service.
“The state offered uncontroverted evidence that it did not receive plaintiffs’ notice of claim,” Weisberg wrote.