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What is the Federal Tort Claims Act?

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  • Written By: Caitlin Kenney
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) is a United States statute that waives the federal government’s sovereign immunity in situations where federal employees have caused wrongful injury within their employment. If a government has sovereign immunity, it cannot be sued unless the government consents to a lawsuit or relinquishes its immunity. The Federal Tort Claims Act allows lawsuits to be brought against the US government in limited cases wherein a government employee, whether a law enforcement official or a government insured hospital, commits tortuous activity.

A tort is a civil wrongdoing, as opposed to a criminal charge, that arises outside of contracts or statutes. These wrongs can be negligent or intentional and may overlap with criminal charges. Negligent torts occur when the defendant does not exercise a normal amount of care, such as rolling through a stop sign; and causes damage, such as a traffic accident. The defendant in a negligent tort case is not deliberately trying to cause harm.

In an intentional tort, the defendant is intending to cause damage. Examples of these may include intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, assault, and battery. The plaintiff, or the person that is pressing charges, must prove that the defendant was aware and actively trying to inflict damage. There are also strict liability torts, in which the plaintiff is responsible for all damages, regardless of whether the wrongdoing was intentional.

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The Federal Tort Claims Act was passed by Congress in 1946 to allow citizens to bring a lawsuit against the federal government in tort cases. The main purposes of the act are to compensate people who have been harmed from wrongful actions taken by government employees and to deter those actions from occurring again. Though the statute had been on the table for some time, it received greater priority after a US bomber flew into the Empire State Building, causing injuries, death, and loss of property. Victims and families of victims pushed to bring a lawsuit against the United States, which was, at the time, immune to tort cases. A year later, the Federal Tort Claims Act was passed, allowing the victims to try the government in the same way a private individual would be tried.

An FTCA lawsuit is tried in front of a judge with no jury. Cases filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act must be tried against the United States government and handled exclusively in that lawsuit, even if the case has grounds for being opened separately against a private individual. The act also outlines several exceptions to the waiver of immunity, such as losses in the postal system, government actions taken during war, damages due to regulation of the monetary system or treasury department management, most international civil wrongs, and the discretionary function.

Discretionary function is a provision which says that the United States is not liable in cases where the employee used personal judgment to make a decision. This does not apply when the individual was given a set of detailed instructions. Since its enactment, several other exceptions have been added to the Federal Tort Claims Act through precedents set in past cases. Cases based on strict liability, constitutionality claims, and many intentional torts cannot be filed under the FTCA.

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