William V. Luneburg
Excerpt from the Federal Tort Claims Act
The United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages.
For centuries, the law has provided for compensation to individuals injured physically or otherwise by the actions of other private persons, including artificial "persons" such as corporations whose employees cause the harm. Significant parts of this liability fall within what is known as the law of torts. However, when the personal injuries are inflicted by the government through the actions of its employees, the ordinary rules of compensation do not apply unless the government takes special action to allow itself to be held liable. With regard to the federal government in particular, it is, as a general matter, immune from all liability under the law unless Congress consents to suit. This is the doctrine of sovereign immunity. As to the United States, the doctrine is not created by the Constitution itself but, rather, recognized by the federal courts in cases decided during the nineteenth century whose rationales have been criticized by various legal commentators. One of the conceptual underpinnings of the doctrine is that there can be no legal right against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends (Kawananakoa v. Polyblack ).
The significance of allowing the United States government to be immune from suit can be fully appreciated only when it is realized that it employs millions of people to do its work, and that work is, more often than not, very similar, if not identical, to that which gives rise to tort liability of private persons. For example, federal employees routinely drive government-owned vehicles as part of their daily routine and, not surprisingly, are involved in automobile accidents. The federal government runs hundreds of hospitals and medical clinics that serve veterans and others; mistakes in treatment are no less common there than in private medical practices against which medical malpractice suits are common. And this is just the tip of the proverbial "iceberg." Of course, the potential magnitude of the government's legal liability can bend has beeneen as a reason to urge for restricting the government's ability to be sued for compensation.
Given sovereign immunity, the traditional means for affording compensation to persons injured by the federal government was not a suit in court but rather, a so-called private bill enacted by both houses of Congress and signed by the president (as in the case of other legislation). Indeed, the first private bill providing redress for a tort claim was enacted as long ago as 1792. However, the mounting volume of these bills during the nineteenth century, the burdens on Congress in considering them, the perceived capriciousness of the process for their introduction and enactment, and the unfairness of leaving persons without any compensation for serious injuries provoked Presidents Fillmore and Lincoln, among others, to suggest that some type of adjudicatory process outside Congress was required to deal adequately with the claims presented.
In 1855, and then in 1887, with the enactment of the Tucker Act, Congress waived the sovereign immunity of the United States with regard to monetary claims other than tort claims (e.g., claims based on contracts with the government). As time went on, Congress enacted various limited waivers of immunity with regard to tort liability, as in connection with the federal operation of railroads during World War I and the operation of government maritime vessels. Those limited provisions for liability were part of a thirty-year debate on the need for a more comprehensive waiver of immunity from suit with regard to the torts committed by federal employees.
With the number of private bills being introduced each year in Congress growing into the thousands, and the majority of tort claimants being left without any remedy, resistance to change in the law weakened significantly. After an army bomber flew into the Empire State Building on a misty Saturday morning in July 1945, killing or injuring a number of people who found, to their dismay, that the most obvious party to sue (the United States) was immune from liability, whatever was left of the argument in favor of general United States immunity from suit for the tortuous acts of its employees rapidly dissipated. One year later, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) (P.L. 79-601, 60 Stat. 842) became law, and the victims of the Empire State Building crash were among the first to bring suit under the new statute.
PROVISIONS OF THE FEDERAL TORT CLAIMS ACT
The FTCA grants exclusive jurisdiction to the federal courts to dispose of claims by individuals and corporations against the United States where the lawsuits seek compensation ("money damages") "for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee" of the United States where that employee acted in performance of his or her governmental duties if the same action resulting in injury would impose liability on a private individual under state law in similar circumstances.
There is a deceptive simplicity with regard to this statement of a general waiver of immunity from suit for tort claims, as is demonstrated by the numerous decisions issued by the Supreme Court and other federal courts attempting to interpret and apply the FTCA over the past sixty years. For example, can the United States be liable without a showing of "fault" (e.g., negligence)? (No.) When can it be said that a governmental employee inflicted injury in the course of the employee's duties (e.g., the car accident occurred on the way from the employee's lunch to his or her duty station)? Do there exist unique governmental functions (e.g., running a lighthouse where the light goes out causing a shipwreck) as to which Congress intended to preserve immunity? (Perhaps, but the Supreme Court has not yet identified them.) And, finally, if the wrongful act takes place in one state and the injury in another and the laws of each state are different, what law applies? (The FTCA is itself clear only in requiring that "state law" must apply.)
One issue that the FTCA, as originally enacted, did not address was the liability of the federal employee to the injured person. Both before and after 1946, the law was clear that federal employees could themselves be liable to the injured person under state law in some circumstances. However, one of the potential costs of such liability is that federal employees become unduly timid in doing their jobs to avoid lawsuits and, as a result, the public interest suffers. Congress dealt squarely with this problem in the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988, commonly known as the Westfall Act after the Supreme Court case that it overruled. Today, when a federal employee is sued to collect money damages for an action performed within the scope of his or her employment, the United States is substituted as the defendant and the employee is excused from the case without the potential for any personal liability. This substitution is not available, however, if the employee's action violated the United States Constitution in circumstances where the courts allow a damage remedy against the employee for that violation.
EXCEPTIONS TO FEDERAL TORT CLAIM LIABILITY
If all of this is not complicated enough, Congress has enacted numerous exceptions to FTCA liability, and the Supreme Court itself has created an important one. The same rationale cannot be offered to support each and every exception. A few of these exceptions should be noted here.
Many torts involving the intentional conduct of federal employees (like assault and battery) cannot be the basis for United States liability under the FTCA. In such cases, it might be argued that it is unfair to penalize the government where the employee is more directly at fault. Nevertheless, there is a category of intentional torts for which the United States can be held liable, including those attributable to the actions of a federal investigative or law enforcement officer.
Not surprisingly, claims arising out of combatant activities in time of war (e.g., one serviceman shoots another by mistake during battle) are excluded.
Another exception of immense importance encompasses actions of federal employees that are considered to involve a "discretionary function." The Supreme Court has struggled, with mixed success since 1953 (Dalehite v. United States) in trying to impose limits on this exception to prevent it from almost entirely swallowing tort liability (since almost every action of a government official involves some discretion, i.e. choice) while, at the same time, protecting governmental functions that Congress probably did not want to affect by the imposition of tort liability (e.g., making important policy decisions).
Finally, the Supreme Court itself has created an exception to FTCA liability: U.S. service personnel injured "incident to service" cannot sue the United States in tort (Feres v. United States ). While the rationales offered for this exception have varied over the years, the one most prominently invoked today is an alleged concern for the effect of liability on military discipline.
In order to encourage the administrative resolution of tort claims arising under the FTCA and to avoid costs imposed by litigation, the injured person must first present his or her claim to the federal agency whose employee allegedly caused the injury. Only after waiting a designated period or obtaining a denial of the claim from the agency (whichever first occurs) can the claimant resort to federal court in a suit against the United States under the FTCA.
Although the FTCA obviously has not removed all of the inequities imposed by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, as a general matter, it goes a long way toward ensuring that the government itself is not above the law.
See also: ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURE ACT; FEDERAL EMPLOYERS' LIABILITY ACT.
"Developments in the Lawemedies against the United States and Its Officials." Harvard Law Review 70 (1957): 82738.
Jaffe, Louis. "Suits against Governments and Officers: Sovereign Immunity." Harvard Law Review 77 (1963): 19.
Jayson, Lester S. Handling Federal Tort Claims: Administrative and Judicial Remedies. Albany, NY: Matthew Bender, 1964.
Lester, Urban A., and Michael F. Noone, eds., "The Federal Tort Claims Act." Litigation with the Federal Government, 3d ed. Philadelphia, PA: American Law Institutemerican Bar Association, 1994.
Wright, William B. The Federal Tort Claims Act Analyzed and Annotated. New York: Central Book Co., 1957.
U.S. Department of Justice Home Page. <http://www.usdoj.gov/>.
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