Following most car accidents, the victim has the right to file a personal injury lawsuit against the negligent driver in state court. What happens when the negligent driver is an employee of the federal government acting in their official capacity? To put it another way, can you sue a federal worker for an auto accident the worker caused when he or she was on the job?
The short answer is no, you cannot sue the employee directly. The longer answer is that you can bring a personal injury claim against the United States government. Under a law known as the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), the U.S. government waives its normal immunity from being sued in its own courts and effectively “steps into the shoes” of the negligent employee. The FTCA basically allows you to sue the federal government and recover damages under state personal injury law.
There are certain rules you must follow before bringing a lawsuit under the FTCA. Normally, you must first file an administrative claim with the federal agency that employed the negligent worker. This administrative claim must be filed within two years of the original accident or injury and include the exact amount of money you are seeking in damages.
The agency then has six months to respond to the administrative claim. If it fails to respond by the deadline, or it simply denies your claim, then you have an additional six months to actually file a lawsuit under the FTCA. If you fail to strictly comply with these deadlines, a judge will dismiss your case.
Henry v. United States
Here is a recent example of a personal injury lawsuit filed under the FTCA. This case, Henry v. United States was brought in Columbus federal court here in Georgia. The plaintiff lives in Harris County. According to the plaintiff’s complaint, he was traveling in his car one morning in September 2015 when it collided with another vehicle. That other vehicle was operated by an employee of the United States Postal Service, who was “acting within the course and scope of her employment.”
The lawsuit alleges the Postal Service driver “negligently and carelessly operated her motor vehicle” to cause the accident. Essentially, the plaintiff argues that he had the right-of-way at the intersection that both vehicles had approached, and that the Postal Service driver failed to yield the right-of-way to him, as required by Georgia traffic laws.
The complaint further states the plaintiff filed the required administrative claim with the Postal Service, but that six months had passed without a response from the agency. The plaintiff seeks damages of up to $1 million as compensation for his injuries, medical bills, and pain and suffering.
It should be noted that while the FTCA typically follows Georgia law with respect to available compensation in a personal injury case, the act does not allow for awards of punitive damages against the federal government, even if they are otherwise justified under state law.