Yes, you can. However, if you have read my past blogs, you’ll find that one of my catchphrases is that “you should hire a lawyer with experience in the field”.
Nowhere is that more true than when bringing a claim against the Federal Government. They operate with a different set of rules than private defendants or municipalities, and a lawyer who doesn’t know these rules will probably end up making a catastrophic error in the handling of your case, and perhaps ruin your chances of collecting an award.
How Do I Know if the Federal Government is Who I’m Suing?
If you followed my first rule, which was to hire an “experienced lawyer”, then he’ll know the answer and you don’t have to. But, to educate, if you are in a car accident with a United States Postal Truck or you slip at the Veterans Administration Hospital, those would be Federal entities. Other obvious examples are the FBI, the CDC, the Social Security Administration, or any entity whose name starts with the “United States” – (ie. the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
How Is a Typical Lawsuit Initiated Against a Private Defendant or Municipality?
OK, so here is why suing the Federal Government is tricky. In New York, if you have a negligence claim against a private defendant, like the driver of a car that hits you, your attorney would have 3 years to file a Summons & Complaint to start the action.
Alternatively, if you were suing a municipality in New York, there are a variety of different deadlines, but one constant is that you would generally need to file a Notice of Claim within 90-120 days after your accident to protect your rights, and then, approximately one year later, you would have to start your lawsuit.
But with the Federal Government, the rules are completely different.
Suing the Government Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”)
First, as a general rule, one can’t sue the government without their permission. This is where the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) comes into play. It is an act, intended to provide monetary compensation for injury, property loss, or death “caused by the negligence of any of their employees. There are multiple exceptions to this Act but, in its essence, the wrongful act or omission must be committed by a federal employee, within the scope of his/her employment, and it must be an act of negligence, as opposed to an intentional act.
The Procedural Steps Required:
Under the FTCA, there are steps one must follow:
File Your Claim: You must file an “administrative claim”, within 2 years from the time your accident occurred, with the federal agency responsible for the alleged misconduct, by using the federal government’s standard claim form, known as an SF95, which is actually pretty straight forward for a government form.
Basics like your name and address are straightforward. But be sure your SF95 includes the exact amount of money damages you are claiming (failure to do so may result in forfeiture of your rights), as well as enough facts about your case to allow the federal agency to investigate the merits of your claim. Include witness names, bills, medical records, receipts and anything you feel would be useful to the government in understanding your case.
The Agency has Six Months to Respond. Once your claim is submitted, the federal agency has six months to rule on it, by mailing you their decision. In some cases, the federal agency may “admit” your claim (agree that your claim is valid) and settle with you.
One important point is that every time you send the agency more information (for instance, updated medical records of your treatment) that starts the clock again, and the agency has another six months to review. This could theoretically go on for years.
You Then Have Six Months to File a Lawsuit. However, if the federal agency rejects your claim, you then have six months from the date on which the decision is mailed to you to file a lawsuit. You should bring your action in the United States District Court that governs the location of your accident.
Finally, if the agency fails to rule on your case within 6 months, then it’s your choice to file suit or await the agency’s decision.
As I said, the format and timing of suing the Federal Government is tricky, so make sure the lawyer you hire has experience with these types of cases. Good luck.