What Happens If Someone Is Injured On Federal Government Property?

What Happens If Someone Is Injured On Federal Government Property?

Nearly all of my cases as a Los Angeles accident lawyer involve claims brought under California state law, not federal law.

Certain legal claims must be brought under federal law.  An example would be claims against the federal government for injuries suffered on government property.

These claims must be brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  And as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just clarified recently in Chadd v. National Park Service, these claims are often thrown out of court, leaving injured plaintiffs with no real recourse.

A bit of background is necessary here.

As a general rule, the United States Government is immune from civil tort lawsuits.

After World War II, Congress decided to abolish this immunity.  It did so by passing the Federal Tort Claims Act, which now allows plaintiffs to sue the federal government in limited circumstances.

Nevertheless, Congress left “exceptions” intact to the law.  What that means is that if an exception applies, a plaintiff is back at square one and the federal government is immune from the lawsuit.

One of these exceptions is known as the “discretionary function exception”.  In a nutshell, it holds that if a government official is granted discretion on how to manage government property or affairs, and that discretion involves judgment or choice, a plaintiff cannot come along ex post facto and hold the government responsible for failing to exercise better discretion.

The Chadd case demonstrates how this exception poses a real hurdle to injured parties.

Susan Chadd and her husband were hiking in Olympic National Park in 2010.  Park officials knew about an infestation of mountain goats throughout the park, and there were reports of several goats exhibiting aggressive behavior towards park visitors for years.  When Mrs. Chadd and her husband Robert reached a popular trail within the park, a 370-pound mountain goat gored him to death.

Mrs. Chadd sued the National Park Service under the Federal Tort Claims Act, arguing that park officials were negligent in not destroying the aggressive animal before it killed someone.

The Court rejected her argument, saying that the discretionary function exception applies in this case.  That means the National Park Service is immune and cannot be sued for negligence.

It’s worth noting that one of the judges authored a persuasive dissent.

Judge Kleinfeld disagreed with his colleagues on the Court, arguing that the Park Service should not be immune from Mrs. Chadd’s lawsuit.  He analogizes her case to a homeowner who knows he has a vicious dog, and does nothing to control the dog until it attacks a child.

Judge Kleinfeld argues that the Chadd case did not present an example of a high-ranking government official displaying detailed “policy analysis” in the exercise of discretion; instead employees of the Park Service dropped the ball and should have eliminated the dangerous mountain goat before it killed Susan Chadd’s husband.

What do you think?

The Rabbi Lawyer would love to hear from you.