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Deuser v. Vecera

    Brief Fact Summary. Albert Deuser (Mr. Deuser), found to be drunk and obnoxious at a fair, was arrested and then released by National Park Rangers. After being released, Mr. Deuser wandered into a street and was killed. The Appellants, Mr. Deuser’s survivors (Appellants), brought a claim against the Appellees, the United States and certain individuals including David Vecera (Mr. Vecera)(Appellees), under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The discretionary function exception to the FTCA disallows civil suit against the United States when the conduct complained of was based upon the exercise of a discretionary function or duty.

    Facts. National Park Rangers were working a fair held on the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. Rangers Mr. Vecera and Edward Bridges observed Mr. Deuser grabbing women on the buttocks. The rangers warned Mr. Deuser and then arrested him when he urinated in public. The rangers attempted to turn Mr. Deuser over to the St. Louis police, but they were unable to process Mr. Deuser’s arrest due to their workload. The rangers decided to release Mr. Deuser away from the fair in a parking lot. Mr. Deuser was left without money or transportation. At some time he was killed by a motorist after wandering onto an interstate highway. At the time of Ms. Deuser’s death, his blood alcohol content was 0.214. The Appellants brought this wrongful death action against the Appellees under the FTCA based on the allegedly negligent acts of the park rangers. The trial court judge dismissed the case.

    Issue. Did the action of the park rangers fall under the discretionary function exception to the FTCA, so as to disallow a civil suit against the United States?

    Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
    * In enacting the FTCA, Congress chose to waive the sovereign immunity enjoyed by the United States and give consent to be sued for damages caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the United States acting within the scope of their employment. However, under the discretionary function exception, the government is shielded from civil liability for claims based on the exercise of a discretionary function whether or not the discretion involved is abused.
    * The Court first considered if the actions taken by the rangers were discretionary, or, a matter of choice. For their guidance, the rangers had a written Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for arrests and the VP Fair Operations Handbook (Handbook). The Handbook made it clear that the rangers had wide latitude in making enforcement decisions and that arrests would be made only on a last resort basis due to the limited manpower available.
    * Under the SOP, the process for arrests is precise and mandatory. When the rangers first arrested Mr. Deuser, the SOP was followed. After that it was not followed, but releasing Mr. Deuser terminated the arrest. The court concluded that terminating an arrest is similar to the decision involved in making an arrest. Due to the infinite number of possible scenarios, decisions of this kind must be within the discretion and judgment of officers.
    * The Court then determined if the judgment involved in terminating Mr. Deuser’s arrest was of the kind the discretionary function exception was designed to shield. Based on the Handbook and the SOP, the court held that the officer’s conduct was grounded in social, economic, and political policies and is a classic example of permissible exercise of policy judgment.

    Discussion. Claims in tort against the Federal Government are a major source of litigation to


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