A Butte County walnut farmer has filed a $15 million claim with the state of California as a result of the Oroville Dam’s spillway failure this year. That precursor to a lawsuit got us wondering: How do you sue the state?
Turns out it's not that easy. Here's how the process works.
Step One: File a claim.
You can’t sue the state without first attempting to recover damages through an administrative claims process. Otherwise, a judge won’t allow your suit to move forward.
The vast majority of claims against the state go through the Government Claims Program (GCP) in the California Department of General Services. Each year, the program typically processes around 7,000 claims, with an approval rate that averages 10-to-15 percent.
Here's a look at the claims form:
GCP staff review the claims for four criteria:
- Timeliness: Claimants have up to six months to file claims for death or injury, damage to personal property, or damage to growing crops. The deadline to file all other claims is one year. Claims submitted after the deadline are rejected.
- Sufficiency: Claimants must sufficiently answer all questions in the claim form, such as providing the basis for how much money is being sought from the state and why the claimant believes the state is at fault. Claims that fall short of this standard are rejected, but GCP will offer guidance on how the claims could be submitted successfully.
- Complexity: Some claims, particularly more expensive ones, are too complex to be evaluated through the GCP administrative process and are more appropriately resolved in the judicial system. Those claims are rejected, paving the way for claimants to take their disputes to court.
- Merit: Claims that meet the top three criteria are then referred to the responsible state agency or department for response. Then, the GCP will determine whether the claim has merit. “For instance, if someone submits a claim saying the state damaged their vehicle while doing state construction, and then it turns out the state was not doing construction in that area at that time, then obviously that has no merit,” explains Monica Hassan with the Department of General Services.
The state may choose to approve the claim in full or in part, or reject it entirely. If your claim is rejected, your next option is to file a lawsuit against the state.
“If we allow (a claim), and it’s not for the full amount that the claimant is requesting, they have the opportunity to...not accept our offer,” Hassan says. “If they choose to do that, they then can go on to the courts.”
Claimants who agree to the payment must sign a release form waiving their right to sue.
The walnut farmer’s claim, filed late Wednesday, is far from the only claim related to the Oroville Dam. (It’s just the first one to be paired with a public relations campaign.) As of Thursday morning, the Department of General Services estimated it has received roughly 80 Oroville-related claims, up from 11 just two weeks ago. That rapid increase is likely because the six-month deadline is about to expire.
Here’s a look at how many claims have been allowed and how much money the state has paid out since 2002. (Data for the most recent fiscal years are not yet available.)
If your claim is accepted and you agree to the payment, there’s no need to file a lawsuit; you’ll just skip down to Step Three below. Otherwise...
Step Two: Sue the state.
The Attorney General’s office represents the state of California in lawsuits against state agencies and employees.
The AG’s office declined to help with our story, so we don’t have any details to share. But as with any defendant, the state can decide whether to fight each suit or negotiate a settlement with the plaintiff.
If your suit gets tossed out, or a judge rules against you, you’re out of luck – although you can always try to appeal.
If you win your lawsuit, or if you agree to a settlement payment…
Step Three: Get paid.
The state can’t spend money on anything without an appropriation from the Legislature in a bill signed by the governor.
Sometimes, agencies are able to pay claims and lawsuit settlements out of their existing budgets. But when they can’t, they must seek a specific appropriation from the Legislature.
So each year, bills making payments for both successful claims and successful lawsuits go through the legislative process at the state Capitol.
“We may not like the outcome, but we do have to pay the bills,” Assembly Appropriations Committee Chair Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) said back in May as she brought one such measure worth $32 million up for debate.
Here’s a look at how much money the state has paid out in claims, settlements and judgments through additional legislative appropriations over the previous three fiscal years:
Claims bills generally move through the Legislature twice a year, meaning it may take some time for your state check to arrive.
However, payments that can be made without seeking additional legislative approval might not take that long.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get reimbursed for damages by the state of California.