Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label discretionary function. Show all posts
Showing posts with label discretionary function. Show all posts

Friday, July 22, 2022

Court denies police immunity under state tort claims act in death of intoxicated man in protective custody

Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
In a lawsuit over the death of an intoxicated man in police protective custody, the defendants were not entitled to immunity under exceptions to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), the Commonwealth Appeals Court held in April.

Police in New Bedford, Mass., took the plaintiff's decedent into protective custody upon finding him in a state of heavy intoxication and disturbing the peace. Police put the man in a county jail cell, where he got into an altercation with another detainee. The other detainee pushed the man to the ground, where he hit his head. The man died from complications of the injury.

Defendant officials sought immunity from the plaintiff's negligence lawsuit under the discretionary function exception to the MTCA, section 10(b), and under the causation limitation of MTCA section 10(j).

Section 10(b) is similar to the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act. It disallows tort claims when public defendants exercise policy-making discretion, even when discretion is abused. The theory behind this exception is that public officials require latitude to make decisions, good and bad, and not every government decision should be second-guessed in litigation. The tort claims act reserves for litigation cases in which standards of conduct are set or clear, and the plaintiff alleges negligence relative to that standard.

The court denied defendants discretionary function immunity, because state law provides that persons in protective custody should be held at police stations, referred to appropriate care facilities, or returned home. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent's commitment to the county jail was improper and proximately caused the injury and death. Police had no discretion under the law to detain the decedent in the county jail.

MTCA section 10(j) is a creature specially of commonwealth law and articulates a potent liability limitation arising in causation. Section 10(j) disallows liability for 

any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.

Thus, state defendants disavow liability under section 10(j) when the plaintiff's liability theory is in the nature of a failure to supervise or intervene, and the more proximate cause of the injury is the conduct of a third party. Here, the defense pointed to the push to the ground by the decedent's fellow detainee, if not the decedent's own provocation.

The court also denied the defendants 10(j) immunity. The official act relevant to the plaintiff's claim was the decision to place the decedent in a county jail cell with potentially dangerous detainees, the court opined, not the precise mechanism of injury that ensued.

The case is Baptista v. Bristol County Sheriff's Department, Nos. 20-P-731 & 20-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 15, 2022). Justice Peter J. Rubin wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Advocates in SCOTUS case on tort and sovereign immunity stick to their guns, frustrate Court's search for middle ground

For the Federalist Society SCOTUScast podcast series, I recorded a commentary on the U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, which occurred in January.  You can read more about Thacker, and see an excellent video the Federalist Society produced, via my January 18 blog entry.

The Tennessee River dips into northern Alabama, where the accident in
Thacker occurred. (Map by Shannon1, CC BY-SA 4.0).
Here is background on the case from the Federalist Society:

On January 14, 2019, the Supreme Court heard argument in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, a case involving a dispute over the “discretionary-function exception” to waivers of federal sovereign immunity.

In 2013, Anthony Szozda and Gary and Venida Thacker were participating in a fishing tournament on the Tennessee River. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had a crew near the river, trying to raise a downed power line that had partially fallen into the river instead of crossing over it. The crew attempted to lift the conductor out of the water concurrent with Szozda and the Thackers passing through the river at a high rate of speed. The conductor struck both Thacker and Szozda, causing serious injury to Thacker and killing Szozda. The Thackers sued TVA for negligence. The district court dismissed the Thackers’ complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. 

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that judgment.  Although the act creating the TVA waives sovereign immunity from tort suits, the Court held that the waiver does not apply where the TVA was engaged in governmental functions that were discretionary in nature. 

Applying a test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Court determined that the TVA’s challenged conduct fell within this “discretionary-function exception” here, and immunity therefore applied.

The Supreme Court granted the Thackers’ subsequent petition for certiorari to address whether the Eleventh Circuit erred in using a discretionary-function test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act rather than the test set forth in Federal Housing Authority v. Burr, when testing the immunity of governmental “sue and be sued” entities (like the Tennessee Valley Authority) from the plaintiffs’ claims.

Counsel for Thacker and counsel for TVA stuck to their guns in the oral argument.  Thacker's position was to interpret the "may sue and be sued" language that governs the TVA and other New Deal authorities to be broadly permissive of tort suits, stopping only to preclude "grave interference" with the executive branch prerogative.  The TVA meanwhile insisted that it is entitled to a broad discretionary function immunity, like that which Congress built into the later enacted Federal Tort Claims Act.

Questions from the Court tried to pull both counselors toward the possible middle ground of a sovereign immunity for governmental functions and not for commercial functions.  But neither counsel was willing to bite.  That led to a lively oral argument.  Thacker's case seems the stronger, but it is unclear how the Court will get to either result.

Friday, January 18, 2019

SCOTUS ponders governmental immunity in boating accident suit against TVA


The Federalist Society produced a beautifully illustrated video, as part the SCOTUSbrief series, to accompany the January 14 oral argument (transcript) in the U.S. Supreme Court in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, a personal injury suit.  The case compels the Court to analyze what, if any, governmental immunity is afforded to a range of New Deal entities, such as the TVA, which Congress broadly authorized "to sue and be sued," decades before the Federal Tort Claims Act came into being.  The Federalist Society generously invited me to provide narration for this video.  At SCOTUSblog, Professor Gregory Sisk, of St. Thomas Law, has an expert analysis of Monday's oral argument.  When available, audio of the oral argument will be posted at Oyez and at C-Span.