Under old English law, it wasn’t always easy to sue someone. Bringing a lawsuit for an injury required that the victim obtain permission from the king or the king’s court, swearing out a “writ of trespass,” or injury that had been caused “by force and arms” and was “against the king’s peace.” The idea, at least in old English law, was that the king alone had the power to punish wrongdoers, and so the victim of an injury was essentially borrowing a part of the king’s authority to obtain a remedy against the person who had “offended” the peace of the king’s reign.
Although the legal system of the United States is derived in many ways from English common law, there are important distinctions. The entire concept of obtaining a “writ of trespass” is gone. We recognize that private citizens should have the legal right to bring a lawsuit on their own, without needing the permission of any king. However, not every part of English law has been excised. In particular, the United States follows a concept called “sovereign immunity” that governs how people can bring a lawsuit against government entities or actors.
It’s a simple concept. The government is supposed to use its resources to maintain peace and keep order. If government actors were held responsible for every possible injury they might inadvertently cause, they would essentially be constrained from doing anything, and society would suffer. Thus, the American government and laws have maintained the idea that the government itself is immune to suit.
However, the government does recognize that under certain circumstances, government actors can make mistakes that cause injury to others, an injury that should be fairly compensated. As a result, the federal government and local governments have enacted statutes that waive this “sovereign immunity” under certain specific circumstances. The Federal Tort Claims Act governs how and when an individual may sue the federal government for an injury. Other jurisdictions have specific requirements and rules for this sort of situation.
The District of Columbia, despite being closely associated in common understanding with the federal government, is not a part of the federal government and functions more like a very small state. Accordingly, it has its own laws and requirements. It has a statute that waives a portion of sovereign immunity for accidental damage or injury done by the District and its agents. However, this waiver is not absolute. To bring an action against the District of Columbia government, a personal injury attorney must comply closely with several requirements. Of all the requirements, the most stringent is the requirement of notice. If an injured person does not notify the District of their injury and intention to bring a claim within a very short period of time after the injury, they will never be able to.