Law School Case Brief
United States v. Olson - 546 U.S. 43, 126 S. Ct. 510 (2005)
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) requires a court to look to the state-law liability of private entities, not to that of public entities, when assessing the government's liability under the FTCA in the performance of activities which private persons do not perform. The U.S. Supreme Court rejects a claim that the scope of FTCA liability for uniquely governmental functions depends on whether state law imposes liability on municipal or other local governments for the negligence of their agents acting in similar circumstances.
Workers who had been injured in a mine accident in Arizona brought against the United States a suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) (28 U.S.C.S. §§ 1346, 2671 et seq.), which, in 28 U.S.C.S. § 1346(b)(1), authorized private tort actions against the United States "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." Among other things, the workers alleged negligence that of the federal mine inspectors. The United States District Court for the District of Arizona dismissed the lawsuit in part on the ground that the allegations were insufficient to show that Arizona law would impose liability on a private person in similar circumstances. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that where unique governmental functions were at issue, the FTCA waived sovereign immunity if a state or municipal entity would have been subject to liability under the law where the activity occurred. According to the appellate court, the FTCA waived sovereign immunity because Arizona law would have made state or municipal entities liable in the circumstances alleged. The United States petitioned for certiorari review.
Was the United States' sovereign immunity waived under the FTCA?
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the FTCA required a court to look to the state-law liability only of private entities, not to that of public entities, when assessing the government's liability under the FTCA in the performance of activities which private persons do not perform. However, further consideration of waiver was required since the inquiry was not limited to the same circumstances as the mine inspection, and a court could look further afield to like circumstances which might create a relationship between the government and third parties similar to that created by mine inspections, such as safety inspections.
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