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Federal Tort Claims Act

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Description: Statute that enabled private citizens to sue the government in civil tort actions in federal court.


Significance: The Federal Tort Claims Act allows people to sue when a federal employee harms a third party or private property by committing an intentional tort or by negligence. The Supreme Court later barred military personnel from suing the federal government for injuries suffered while performing their jobs.


The Federal Tort Claims Act was passed in 1946 to protect third parties injured by the actions of federal government employees. If a federal employee, acting within the scope of his or her employment, injures a third party, then the federal government can be held liable for the employee's actions. Historically, the federal government was protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which prevented a lawsuit's being filed against a government authority without the government's consent. The 1946 act limits the protection of the doctrine and allows third parties to seek compensation. However, when the lawsuit arises out of injury to military personnel, acting within the scope of their service, the Supreme Court held that the government cannot be sued under the act. Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange filed a class action suit against the federal government and the herbicide's manufacturers. In one case, In re “Agent Orange” Product Liability Litigation (1980), the manufacturers reached a pretrial settlement with several of the veterans and their families. The suit against the federal government was dismissed by the lower court, and the Court refused to hear the appeals by the veterans. The Court continued to maintain that the act does not extend to suits filed by military personnel. In Hercules v. United States (1996), the Court stated that this exclusion is still viable. Additionally, the Court refuses to impose liability when a private business contracting with the federal government attempts to hold the government responsible for negligent acts performed by the business. The injured third party can seek compensation from the business but not from the government. However, when the federal government is liable, the Court has enforced the provisions of the act. In Molzof v. United States (1992), a veteran suffered irreversible brain damage because of negligence at a Veterans’ Administration hospital. The lower court granted damages under the act but refused to award damages for future medical expenses and for loss of enjoyment of life. The lower court held that awarding such damages would be providing punitive damages, which the act expressly prohibits; the act prohibits awarding damages solely for the purpose of punishing the government for its actions. The Court reversed the decision, finding that although the award of such damages may have a punitive effect, it should be considered compensatory.