In California, Misdirected Malpractice Claim Can Proceed Only If Actually Received by Clerk, Secretary, Auditor, or Board of Local Public Entity

A woman underwent surgery at a medical center owned and operated by a county. In the recovery room, the woman complained of pain in her left leg, which was blue and cold to the touch. She underwent subsequent surgery to repair her left iliac artery, which had been completely severed in the initial surgery. Later that year, she presented to the same medical center’s emergency room complaining of severe pain in her left leg. The ER doctor told her that another surgery was required to repair the damage caused by the initial surgery.


The woman retained counsel to sue the county medical center and the two surgeons who performed the initial surgery. The plaintiff’s attorney personally delivered a notice of intent to sue to an employee of the medical staffing office in the hospital's administration building. The notice was addressed to the risk management department at the county hospital and the two surgeons. The notice was not delivered to the clerk, secretary, auditor, or board of the county. The woman filed a claim for medical malpractice arguing that the defendants negligently performed surgery, interrupting blood flow to plaintiff's leg, and then failed to repair the problem.


The county filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff failed to comply with the Government Claims Act. <st>West's Ann. Cal. Gov. Code § 915(a)</st> requires that a claim against the government be presented to a local public entity by “[d]elivering it to the clerk, secretary or auditor,” or by mailing it to one of these officials “or to the governing body.” Section 915(e)(1) provides that a misdirected claim “shall be deemed to have been presented in compliance” with section 915 if “[i]t is actually received by the clerk, secretary, auditor or board of the local public entity.” The plaintiff argued that she substantially complied with the Government Claims Act by delivering the notice to the county’s risk management department, the department most involved with defending claims against the county.


The Superior Court granted the county’s motion for summary judgment holding that the plaintiff could not show that the notice had been received by the clerk, secretary, auditor, or board of the county and could not show that the requirement should be waived or subject to equitable estoppel. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiff’s substantial compliance was sufficient. Specifically, the court reasoned that “a claim may substantially comply with the act, notwithstanding failure to deliver or mail it to one of the specified recipients, if it is given to a person or department whose functions include the management or defense of claims against the defendant entity.”


The California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal and upheld the Superior Court’s decision to grant the county’s motion for summary judgment based on deficient notice of claim. The court held that the plaintiff’s presentation did not meet the requirements of the Government Claims Act (GCA). The GCA requires actual receipt by the statutorily designated persons, under section 915(e)(1). In so holding, the court disapproved of Jamison v. State of California, 31 Cal.App.3d 513 (Cal. App. 4th Dist., 1973), which held that service upon any responsible official of the local public entity, but not the statutory officer, is sufficient if the party served has the duty to notify the statutory agent. Jamison inappropriately shifted responsibility for filing a claim with the proper official or body from the claimant to the public entity. The exception carved out by Section 915(e)(1) allowing misdirected claims to proceed so long as they are actually received by the clerk, secretary, auditor, or board of the local public entity does not apply where there is no actual receipt by one of those enumerated entities.


See: DiCampli-Mintz v. County of Santa Clara, 2012 WL 6050500 (Cal., December 6, 2012) (not designated for publication).