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United States v. Olson


    Citation. United States v. Olson, 546 U.S. 43 (U.S. Nov. 8, 2005)

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.  The Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), authorizes private tort actions against the United States (in effect, the United States waives its sovereign immunity) under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the state where the act or omission occurred.

    Facts.  Two injured mine workers sued the United States claiming that the negligence of federal mine inspectors helped bring about a serious accident at an Arizona mine.  The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit in part upon the ground that plaintiffs’ allegations were insufficient to show that Arizona law would impose liability upon a private person in similar circumstances.  The Ninth Circuit reversed this determination based on two premises, holding that (1) where “unique governmental functions” are at issue, the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) waives sovereign immunity and (2) federal mine inspections are such “unique governmental functions”.  The Ninth Circuit then held that Arizona law would make “state or municipal entities” liable under the circumstances alleged, hence the FTCA waived the United States’ sovereign immunity.  The United States Supreme Court vacated the Ninth’s Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case.

    Held. Not necessarily.  The FTCA says it waives sovereign immunity “under circumstances where the United States, if a private person,” would be liable.  It does not say immunity is waived where the United States, if a state or municipal entity, would be liable.  The FTCA requires a court to look to the state-law liability of private entities, not public entities, when assessing the Government’s liability.  In addition, the FTCA makes the United States liable “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.”  Such “like circumstances” do not restrict a court’s inquiry to the exact same circumstances, but require it to look further afield.  The Ninth Circuit should have found a more compelling analogy to compare the federal mine inspectors activities to those of private individuals in order to find that sovereign immunity had been waived.  The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case back to the district court to determine whether the United States is liable.

    Discussion. The FTCA was enacted because the federal government’s sovereign immunity from tort suit eventually became a nuisance to Congress.  This is because citizens who were denied access to courts often sought recovery from their Congressperson via a “private bill”, consuming Congressional time.  To minimize time loss, Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act in 1946, turning over such claims to the judicial process.  The FTCA waived the federal government’s immunity from tort suits, but did not do so completely, as this case demonstrates.  Moreover, this case demonstrates that although FTCA claims must be brought in federal court, the substantive law that governs claims under the FTCA is the law of the state in which the alleged tort occurred.


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