The purpose of the Federal Tort Claims Act is to waive the sovereign immunity that would normally bar a lawsuit by private citizens against the federal government for wrongdoing committed by its employees in the scope of their employment.
However, there are 13 specific exemptions to the waiver, with the most commonly used being the discretionary function exception. It provides in part that the government can’t be liable for claims based on the exercise or performance of a discretionary function or duty of the government worker – regardless of whether that discretion was abused.
This is in contrast to ministerial functions, which are specific duties made mandatory by the government employer. The exception is broad, and it isn’t always applied with any real precision by the courts. This can make it difficult to predict a precise outcome.
In the recent case of Chadd v. U.S., the question was whether federal park employees were protected under the discretionary function exception after a goat fatally attacked a man visiting that park. The goat had been a problem for years, and yet employees had not taken action to destroy it, despite this knowledge.
Decedent’s wife alleged breach of duty of reasonable care in failing to destroy the goat.
District court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, citing the discretionary function exception. In a split-panel decision, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding no extant statute, regulation or policy directive that required the officials at the park to destroy the goat prior to decedent’s death. Rather, the officials at the park had discretion on this matter. Thus, plaintiff could not proceed with her wrongful death lawsuit.
According to court records, mountain goats were not native to this particular park, but rather were introduced several decades ago. Most don’t think of goats as being dangerous, but males can weigh anywhere from 240 to 380 pounds, and they have sharp horns that can be powerfully thrust when the animal is angered. Usually, goats have an aversion to humans, but in this park, they sometimes sought areas visited by humans because of salt humans often left behind. Here, they became habituated to human presence. When that happens – as park officials received word was happening with some in the 300-plus goat population in the park at the time of this incident – it can result in aggressive behavior, such as standing ground, chasing, pawing at the ground and rearing up.
Park officials investigated and confirmed these accounts and put tracking devices on some of the goats to monitor this behavior. Visitors were warned about this issue, and park officials began shooting at the goats with bean bags and paint balls in an effort to scare them away from humans.
Still, they continued to receive reports of a large male goat chasing visitors and acting with aggression. Officials discussed possible solutions, which included a plan to intensify hazing toward the goat to get it to back off.
But that wasn’t working. One park official asked a supervisor about relocating the goat, but nothing had been done. The goat continued to act with aggression.
Then, in October 2010, a man and his wife were hiking when the male goat attacked the man, goring his leg and severing his femoral artery. The man later died, and officials found and finally destroyed the 370-pound goat.
In her lawsuit, plaintiff asserted government failed in its duty to exercise reasonable care when officials failed to destroy the goat when they had the chance.
Government moved for summary judgment on grounds that the decision to destroy the goat was a discretionary one, not written into policies or even subject to policy analysis.
Although the park manual indicated that exotic, non-native species (like mountain goats) should be managed – up to and including eradication – if such control is feasible and prudent and the creatures pose a risk to public safety – there was no mandatory course of action spelled out in the manual.
The appeals court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment after considering this and other arguments.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Chadd v. United States, July 27, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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