How to Sue a City for Negligence


Suing the government for negligence isn’t as easy as pursuing a personal injury case against a private party, but it’s certainly possible. Additional procedural rules apply and there are certain immunities that apply, but in the end public entities can (and should) be held accountable when they breach their duty of care to the public.

How to Sue a City for Damages

There are a number of reasons an Arizona resident may choose to sue a city for damages. Perhaps a pothole on a public road seriously damaged your car, or you slipped and fell on the premises of a government building. Regardless of the incident, you have the right to sue the city to recover damages for your injury.

Step One: Consult with a Personal Injury Attorney

While it’s certainly possible to represent yourself in a lawsuit against the city, doing so would be inadvisable. The city has a team of attorneys at their disposal, and if the case is large enough they may opt to hire outside counsel. Either way, you’ll need an experienced attorney in your corner if you want to win your claim.

Most attorneys offer free consults for accident victims. After contacting an attorney’s office, you’ll probably need to complete a short phone call or in-person meeting with the attorney’s assistant to ensure your case is a good fit for the attorney and check for potential conflicts of interest. 

When you meet with the attorney for the first time, he or she will assess your case while you, in turn, assess whether or not the attorney is a good fit for you. You’ll potentially be working with this attorney for months or years, so there needs to be a sense of trust and respect between both parties. 

The attorney won’t offer any legal advice in a consultation, but they may offer some general counsel on how they’d approach the case.

The attorney should cover their expectations for how long the case would reasonably take, and an estimate of potential damages. They should also cover their fees and costs, which most likely would take the form of a contingency fee where they take a certain percentage of the case when you win. 

Step Two: File a Notice of Claim with the City

The primary procedural difference between private personal injury lawsuits and suing a city is that public entities are entitled to receive a Notice of Claim before you actually file the lawsuit. Doing so affords the city a chance to handle the matter privately before going to court.

Your Notice of Claim may vary slightly based on the details of your case, but generally speaking it should include the following information:  

  • Names and contact information for all interested parties
  • Description of how, where, and when the accident occurred
  • The extent of your injury
  • The amount of damages you’re seeking 

In Arizona, you have 180 days after your accident to file a Notice of Claim with the city. Ignore this at your own peril, as your lawsuit will be dismissed if you fail to file a Notice of Claim on time.

Step Three: Await a Response From the City

Sometimes the city will elect to settle a personal injury claim after receiving a Notice of Claim, but it’s safe to say that in most cases the city will deny the claim. Even if they do offer a settlement amount, it may be a lowball offer just to see if you’ll take the money and drop the matter.

Whether the city offers an unfair settlement or simply denies the claim, their response clears the way for you to now file your personal injury lawsuit against the city. Don’t be dismayed, though — there’s still hope for a private settlement before your case actually goes to court.

Step Four: File a Lawsuit Against the City

Your attorney will file your personal injury lawsuit with the appropriate Arizona court, then serve copies of the lawsuit to the city and any other interested parties. The city will have a short period of time to issue a formal response to the court before the discovery process begins.

During discovery, both sides have the opportunity to gather evidence pertinent to the case. This includes interviewing eyewitnesses and expert witnesses, requesting medical records, and possibly seeking video surveillance. Discovery often takes anywhere from several months to a year to complete.

While you may not be thrilled to wait through a long discovery process, the good news is that most cases reach a private settlement during or immediately after discovery. As soon as the city has enough evidence to see that they will likely lose in court, continuing to stall and ultimately go to court no longer makes any sense. Doing so would just cost the city more time and money, so it simply becomes a matter of reaching a fair settlement.

Step Five: Trial (if necessary)

In the rare case you are unable to reach a settlement agreement with the city, your case will go before a judge or jury. While discovery may take months, the average trial only takes a few days.

Taking your case to trial certainly takes longer than accepting a settlement offer, but the upside is that damages awarded by a judge or jury are often higher than settlements. So, if you’re getting low settlement offers from the city, it may be wise to push through your case until the end in order to get the damages that you deserve.

What About County, State, and Local Government Cases?

Our discussion has revolved around lawsuits against the city, but the same rules apply to lawsuits against the county, the state, or another public entity. Regardless of who you’re up against, your case simply needs to prove five things:

  1. The public entity has a duty of care
  2. The public entity breached their duty of care
  3. You suffered an actual injury
  4. The public entity’s breach of duty caused your injury
  5. The incident in question is not covered by an immunity clause

How Can Public Entities Claim Immunity?

State and local governments are free to set their own immunity laws, so there are a number of ways the city can claim immunity in a personal injury case. For example, you may not be able to sue for damages if you were trespassing on city property.

First responders are often covered by immunity clauses when serving the public, so if a police officer responding to an emergency call runs a red light and hits your car, the city might not actually be liable for the damages.

Of course, even when immunity rules apply, there are limits to them. In the previous example, the police officer should have had their lights and siren on. Failure to activate their lights and siren before running the red light may be considered a breach of duty of care, in which case the city may be liable for your injuries.

Receive Help Filing a Lawsuit Against a City in Arizona

If you were injured in an Arizona city and believe it was due to negligence, JacksonWhite’s personal injury team can help you take action and receive compensation for your injuries. Filing a lawsuit against a city can be intimidating, but with patience and excellent legal representation even the most difficult case can be won.

Call Our Personal Injury Team at (480) 467-4392 to discuss your case today.

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