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Deuser v. Vecera

Citation. 139 F.3d 1190
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139 F.3d 1190

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff was arrested at a fair by defendant for public urination. Defendant released the intoxicated plaintiff in a parking lot that was ten blocks away from the site of the fair. Plaintiff wandered onto an interstate highway, where he was struck and killed by a motorist. Plaintiff’s survivors brought suit for wrongful death.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The United States is shielded from liability when it exercises sound judgment and discretionary action and its conduct is founded in social, economic, or political goals.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Second, if the challenged conduct involves an element of judgment or choice, a court must determine whether that judgment is of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield.

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Facts.

On the weekend of July Fourth, a fair was held in a national park (where the Gateway Arch was located) in St. Louis, Missouri. The park was within the jurisdiction of the National Park Rangers, a federal agency, who helped supervise the event. Larry Deuser (plaintiff) was one of the attendees at the fair. Deuser grabbed women on the buttocks during the event. The rangers warned Deuser to refrain from further misconduct. The rangers supervised Deuser for the remainder of the event. Deuser later urinated in public during the fair and the rangers arrested him. The rangers attempted to turn Deuser over to the St. Louis police, but they were too overwhelmed with the additional workload created by the fair on the July Fourth weekend. The rangers and the St. Louis police agreed to release Deuser, but to do so away from the park. Deuser was released in a parking lot about ten blocks from the fair, from where he wandered alone with no money and no transportation. Deuser, whose blood alcohol level was above the legal limit, wandered onto an interstate highway. Deuser was struck and killed by a motorist. Deuser’s survivors brought a wrongful death action against the United States (defendant) under the Federal Tort Claims Act, based on the alleged negligent act of deciding not to arrest Deuser and instead releasing him in a parking lot.

Issue.

Whether the United States is shielded from liability under the discretionary function exception?

Held.

Yes, the conduct of the park rangers was within the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. Terminating Deuser’s arrest was a discretionary function reserved to the judgment of the rangers. Moreover, the conduct of the rangers was grounded in social, economic, and political policies of the fair’s operational handbook that the rangers were obliged to follow. The District Court’s judgment is affirmed.

Discussion.

There is a two-step inquiry in determining whether the discretionary function exception applies. First, the court must ask whether the actions taken by the actors were discretionary. Second, the court must ask whether the judgment exercised by the tortfeasors was of the kind that the exception was designed to shield. The rangers had general guidelines to follow as set out by a written handbook. The handbook suggested that the rangers’ “sound judgment and discretionary action” was to be exercised in the decision on whether to make an arrest. The handbook did not provide guidance as to what procedure to follow in the event an arrest was made. Here, the defendants followed the prescribed procedure for arrest. When Deuser was released in the parking lot, his arrest was terminated. Terminating Deuser’s arrest was a discretionary functionary reserved to the judgment of the park rangers. Furthermore, to be protected under the exception, the actors’ conduct must be founded in social, economic, or political goals. The decision to remove Deuser from the fair served the social goals of ensuring that other the enjoyment of other fair attendees was not diminished by Deuser’s presence. Law enforcement was stretched thin that day, and economic goals were achieved by releasing Deuser given the scarce law enforcement resources. Finally, political goals were achieved because the fair was not a National Park Service event. When the police opted not to press charges, the rangers properly did not override the police’s decision by releasing Deuser. The discretionary function exception is thus applicable here. The United States is shielded from liability.


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