WHAT HAPPENS IF A PLAINTIFF SUES A MUNICIPALITY WITHOUT GIVING ADEQUATE WRITTEN NOTICE?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Dodge City Implement, Inc. v. Bd. of County Com’rs of County of Barber, 205 P.3d 1265 (Kan. 2009).
This case addresses the following issue:
What happens if a plaintiff sues a municipality without giving adequate written notice?
This case explored the issue of what would happen if a plaintiff sued a municipality (city or town with own local government) without giving adequate written notice. In exploring this issue, the court concluded that if written notice was not given, the court could not hear the case against the municipality. Id. at 1281.
This case arose out of a collision between a train and a truck in Barber County, Kansas. Id. at 1268. After the collision, the train company filed suit against the truck company and the parties entered into a settlement agreement in which the truck company paid the train company $3 million. Id. A few years later, the truck company filed suit against Barber County and alleged that the County was responsible for maintaining the grade crossing and traffic controls at the site of the accident, that earthen obstacles and vegetation obscured visibility, and that the angle of the road and an excessively short highway approach created a dangerous condition for crossing vehicles. Id. The County responded by stating that the truck company did not provide sufficient notice of their claims under a particular Kansas statute. Id. at 1269. Eventually, the district judge heard the arguments and held that the truck company’s notice of claim filed with the County did not substantially comply with the Kansas statute and therefore the court could not hear it. Id. On appeal, a panel of the Court of Appeals agreed and found that the written notice failed to indicate, as required, the name and address of the those making the claims, the nature and extent of the injuries claimed, and the amount of damages sought. Id. at 1270.
The Supreme Court of Kansas reviewed the issue of whether the district court judge erred in concluding that the truck company did not substantially comply with the Kansas statute. Id. at 1268. The Kansas statute stated, “Any person having a claim against a municipality which could give rise to an action . . . shall file a written notice . . . before commencing such action.” Id. at 1280. Furthermore, the statute included five items that the written notice should include: (1) name and address of the person making the claim and his or her attorney’s name and address; (2) short statement of the factual basis of the claim; (3) the name and address of any public officer or employee involved; (4) a short statement of the nature and the extent of the injury complained; and (5) a statement of the monetary damages requested. Id. The court first noted that any person or entity with a claim against a municipality must file a written notice of the claim with the municipality, and the filing of a proper written notice was a prerequisite to the filing of an action in district court. Id. at 1281. Moreover, the court determined that if the written notice requirement was not met, the court could not hear the case against the municipality in court. Id. However, the court noted that only substantial compliance with the statute was necessary (meaning compliance in respect to the essential matters necessary to assure every reasonable objective of the statute.) Id.
After review of the truck company’s written notice, the court determined that the district court and Court of Appeals were correct in determining that the notice did not substantially comply with the requirements of the Kansas statute. Id. at 1282-83. The court found that the written notice identified an incorrect plaintiff, did not give the plaintiff’s addresses, did not give the attorney’s addresses, and did not put the County on notice of the damages sought on the claim. Id. at 1283. Therefore, the written notice posed serious obstacles to the County’s full investigation and understanding of the facts of the claim alleged. Id.
In sum, the truck company did not provide Barber County with an adequate written notice so the court could not hear the case. Id.