Federal Tort Claims Act & Sovereign Immunity
Sovereign immunity is the legal principle where the government cannot be held liable for civil damages. It exists at both the State and Federal level. Federally, the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) represents the federal government’s waiver of its immunity to certain suits. See Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 6 (1962) (the FTCA “was designed primarily to remove the sovereign immunity of the United States from suits in tort”).
Specifically, the FTCA gives federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction over claims against the U.S. for “injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful actor omission” of federal employees acting within the scope of their employment. 28 U.S.C. Section 1346 (b)(1). The FTCA makes the U.S. liable “to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances” , under the law of the place where the tort occurred, subject to enumerated exceptions to the immunity waiver. Exceptions to waiver include discretionary decisions made by the government and most intentional torts (e.g., assault, battery tortious interference with a business expectancy or contract); in such circumstances, the U.S. government simply cannot be held liable.
Procedurally, any tort claim against the U.S. government (or any of its agents) first needs to go through an administrative process. A factual claim and demand for damages need to be made to the particular federal agency/entity which is responsible. If the claim cannot be resolved administratively, then a suit may be filed in the applicable federal district court. There are strict timelines that need to be followed in this process, or else the claim may be lost.
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