Suing Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) is a crucial piece of legislation that allows private individuals to sue the United States in federal court for most torts committed by persons acting on behalf of the United States. Before the FTCA was enacted in 1946, the doctrine of sovereign immunity prevented such lawsuits. This doctrine essentially stated that “the King can do no wrong,” meaning that the government could not be sued without its consent. The FTCA was a significant departure from this principle, providing a mechanism for citizens to seek redress for injuries caused by the negligent or wrongful acts of federal employees.

Historical Background

The FTCA was passed in the wake of numerous claims against the federal government, especially after incidents like the B-25 bomber crash into the Empire State Building in 1945. Before the FTCA, individuals who were injured by the government had to seek compensation through special legislation passed by Congress. This process was cumbersome and often resulted in inconsistent outcomes. The FTCA was designed to streamline this process and provide a uniform method for individuals to pursue claims against the federal government.

Key Provisions of the FTCA

The FTCA is codified in Title 28 of the United States Code, beginning at Section 1346(b) and continuing with Sections 2671-2680. Some of the key provisions include:

Waiver of Sovereign Immunity

The FTCA waives the United States’ sovereign immunity for certain torts, allowing it to be sued “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances” (28 U.S.C. § 2674). In other words,  the government agrees to allow itself to be sued in certain situations, even though normally it cannot be sued without its consent. This allows people to seek compensation from the government for harm caused by its actions or negligence because it otherwise would not be able to do so.

Exclusive Remedy

Under the FTCA, the remedy against the United States for the negligent or wrongful acts of its employees is exclusive, meaning that individuals cannot sue the federal employee personally for actions taken within the scope of their employment (28 U.S.C. § 2679). This provision not only protects the government but also ensures that federal employees can perform their duties without the fear of personal liability, maintaining a balanced and just system.

Administrative Claims Requirement

 Before filing a lawsuit under the FTCA, a claimant must first present the claim to the appropriate federal agency and allow the agency six months to either settle or deny the claim. This is known as the administrative claims process (28 U.S.C. § 2675).

Statute of Limitations

A claim must be filed within two years of the date the claim accrues. If the claim is denied, the claimant has six months from the date of the denial to file a lawsuit (28 U.S.C. § 2401).

There is also a notice requirement.  Before filing a lawsuit against the United States government for damages due to a tort, a claimant must first present the claim to the appropriate federal agency. This notice requirement is codified in 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a).

The process involves submitting a Standard Form 95 (SF-95) or other written notification to the relevant agency, detailing the nature and extent of the injury and the amount of compensation sought. The agency then has six months to investigate and respond to the claim. During this period, the claimant cannot file a lawsuit. If the agency denies the claim or fails to make a final disposition within six months, the claimant is then permitted to file a lawsuit in federal court.

This notice requirement is intended to give the federal agency an opportunity to review and potentially settle the claim without the need for litigation, thereby conserving judicial resources and facilitating the resolution of claims. Failure to comply with this requirement can result in the dismissal of the lawsuit.

Exceptions to Liability

There are several exceptions to the government’s waiver of immunity under the FTCA. These include claims arising out of combatant activities during time of war, claims arising in foreign countries, and claims based upon the exercise or performance (or failure thereof) of a discretionary function or duty (28 U.S.C. § 2680).

Filing a Claim Under the FTCA

Filing a claim under the FTCA involves several steps:

  1. Filing an Administrative Claim: The process begins with the injured party filing an administrative claim with the appropriate federal agency. This claim must include a description of the injury and a specific dollar amount in damages. The Standard Form 95 (SF-95) is typically used for this purpose, although other written forms are acceptable as long as they contain the necessary information. This involves three elements: first, presenting the claim to the appropriate federal agency (28 U.S.C.S. § 2675(a)); second, stating the sum sought for the claim (28 U.S.C.S. § 2675(b)); and third, waiting for the agency to either deny the claim or fail to make a final disposition within six months (28 U.S.C.S. § 2675(a)).
  2. Agency Review: The federal agency has six months to investigate the claim and make a determination. During this period, the agency may settle the claim, deny it, or fail to act, which is considered a denial.
  3. Filing a Lawsuit: If the claim is denied or not settled within six months, the claimant can file a lawsuit in federal district court. The lawsuit must be filed within six months of the denial of the administrative claim.

FTCA Attorneys’ Fees

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, attorneys’ fees are subject to specific limitations. The Act includes a provision that limits the amount attorneys can charge for their services. Specifically, attorneys’ fees are capped at 25% of any judgment or settlement if the case is resolved through litigation. If the claim is settled administratively before a lawsuit is filed, attorneys’ fees are limited to 20% of the settlement amount. These caps are designed to ensure that plaintiffs receive a fair portion of any compensation awarded. Furthermore, the court is authorized to enforce these limits and can impose penalties on attorneys who violate the fee restrictions. This regulation underscores the FTCA’s intention to provide just compensation to claimants while preventing exploitation by legal representatives.

This is a good law for victims who can still get a Federal Tort Claims Act lawyer.  It is a bad law for victims who cannot find a lawyer because the lawyer is not incentivized to take the risk.

FTCA Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

The Public Health Service (PHS) Act designates the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C.S. § 1346(b), as the sole remedy for damages related to personal injury or death caused by medical, surgical, dental, or related functions performed by PHS employees or officers within their employment scope (42 U.S.C.S. § 233(a)).

Certificate of merit requirements imposed by states do not apply in FTCA cases. This conclusion is based on the statutory language through which Congress has outlined the extent to which state law is applied as federal law in FTCA cases. The FTCA specifies that when the United States is sued for tort, it is liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under similar circumstances (28 U.S.C.S. § 2674). The statute also waives the federal government’s sovereign immunity for personal injury claims where a private person would be liable according to the local law where the act or omission occurred.

Limitations and Challenges

While the FTCA provides a means for individuals to seek redress, there are limitations and challenges:

Discretionary Function Exception

One of the most significant exceptions under the FTCA is the discretionary function exception, which bars claims based on the performance or failure to perform a discretionary function or duty. This means that if a government employee’s actions involve judgment or choice, and are grounded in considerations of public policy, the government is immune from liability.

When determining if the FTCA’s discretionary function exception applies, courts first assess whether a federal statute, regulation, or policy mandated a specific action or if the government actor had discretion. This analysis focuses on the conduct’s nature rather than the actor’s status. If discretion was involved, courts then consider whether the action was based on public policy considerations. Plaintiffs must show genuine issues of material fact regarding the exception, while the government bears the burden of proving its applicability.

Intentional Torts

Generally, the FTCA does not cover intentional torts such as assault, battery, and false imprisonment. However, there are exceptions, particularly for acts committed by law enforcement officers.

Federal Employees Only

The FTCA applies only to federal employees and does not cover contractors or other non-federal personnel.

Jury Trials

Claims under the FTCA are decided by a judge, not a jury. This can be a disadvantage for claimants who might otherwise benefit from a jury’s sympathy. You get fewer huge verdicts from a judge. The risk of a huge verdict often drives settlement amounts.

FTCA Verdicts and Settlements

  •  $780,000 Settlement (Arizona 2024): The plaintiffs were Guatemalan and Honduran nationals who claimed that they crossed the U.S. border and were detained by U.S. Customs officials in Arizona. Defendant United States reportedly had established a family separation program, through which it targeted for criminal prosecution parents who crossed the border with children. The defendant allegedly intended the separations to inflict harm and cause a deterrent effect and knew the separations would cause trauma to families. The plaintiff’s parents said their children were taken away from them, were designated as unaccompanied minors, and were placed in the custody of a federal agency.
  • $3,800,000 Verdict (Arkansas 2024): The plaintiff underwent a  lumbar decompression fusion performed by a VA neurosurgeon. The plaintiff contended that he subsequently developed a remote cerebellar hemorrhage related to the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak and became unresponsive. The plaintiff said that although a burr hole procedure was performed and an external ventricular drain (EVD) was placed, his neurological status failed to improve. As a result, the plaintiff was reportedly taken back to surgery for re-exploration of the dural tear and for repair of the CSF leak, with the placement of a new EVD. He brought a malpractice claim under the FTCA against the VA doctor.
  • $4,230 Verdict (Nevada 2023): This is a good example of a low-end FTCA claim. The plaintiff claimed that  her vehicle was rear-ended at an intersection by a vehicle owned by defendant United States of America (probably a postal delivery vehicle). According to the plaintiff, the defendant’s driver was cited on scene by responding police as following her vehicle too closely. She claimed to suffer serious brain injuries but apparently the jury was not convinced.
  • $3,750,000 Settlement (Illinois 2023): A 47-year-old female, received her primary medical care from a health center which was federally funded, the health center and its staff covered by the FTCA, with United States of America as the named defendant. The woman died of cardiac arrest, allegedly due to her undiagnosed and uncontrolled diabetes which was permitted to develop into diabetic ketoacidosis. Her estate filed a wrongful death action with allegations that the decedent underwent lab tests that revealed she had early onset, treatable diabetes, but the nurse that discussed her lab work with her failed to diagnose diabetes, failed to inform the decedent she had diabetes and failed to provide an appropriate treatment plan for monitoring and managing her condition.
  • $7,500 Settlement (New York 2023): Plaintiff said she was driving westbound when another westbound vehicle and/or its attached trailer collided with her vehicle. The other vehicle reportedly was owned by defendant United States of America and operated by its employee.
  • $500,000 Settlement (Virginia 2023): The Decedent reportedly sought treatment multiple times beginning in 2014 at a medical center operated by the defendant United States of America through its Department of Veterans Affairs for complaints including headache, weakness, dizziness, foot and leg pain, and difficulty lifting. He was reportedly treated for anemia and lab tests were ordered. After he died, his estate brought a wrongful death action under the FTCA.
  • $130,000 Settlement (Louisiana 2022): The plaintiff was prisoner in a federal prison in Louisiana. He claimed that he suffered injuries to his leg due to an altercation commenced by another prisoner, but his medical condition, namely a displaced fibula fracture, was not diagnosed for approximately six weeks. The plaintiff his leg grew worse after his diagnosis, and when he was released from prison approximately four months after the altercation, his discharge papers indicated his displaced proximal fracture of the fibula was permanent. He filed a lawsuit under the FTCA against the federal bureau of prisons.

Contact Us About FTCA Lawsuits

 If you have a potential injury case against the federal government, contact our Federal Tort Claims Act lawyers today for a free case evaluation. Call us at 800-553-8082 or contact us online.

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