Thinking of Suing the United States in Tort?
On October 31, 2023, in the case of Brown v. United States of America, a Magistrate Judge in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas recommended that a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from a recreational boat accident that killed two men be dismissed. This recommendation is significant because it addresses jurisdictional issues associated with tort suits against the United States.
On May 1, 2021, two men were killed when a recreational boat struck an unmarked river piling on the Lower Colorado River. On December 12, 2022, Plaintiffs filed administrative claims with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On April 24, 2023, after waiting less than six months, the beneficiaries of the decedents' estates sued the United States of America, the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, and three government officials in their official capacities under the Federal Torts Claims Act ("FTCA"). Plaintiffs maintained that defendants failed to eliminate the dangerous condition of the unmarked river piling and failed to warn defendants. Defendants moved to dismiss the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Defendants argued that plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under the FTCA before filing suit. Plaintiffs countered that the United States had waived sovereign immunity under the FTCA.
The United States is immune from suit unless it has waived its sovereign immunity and consented to being sued. Sovereign immunity is a judicial doctrine which precludes suing the government without its consent. A plaintiff bears the burden of showing Congress's unequivocal waiver of sovereign immunity. The Magistrate's recommendation focused primarily on the FTCA since the plaintiffs were not seeking recovery under the Suits in Admiralty Act (SIAA) or the Public Vessels Act (PVA). The FTCA contains an exhaustion of remedies provision, barring individuals from bringing a suit in federal court unless they have filed an administrative claim with the appropriate federal agency, and either obtained a written denial or waited six months after the claim is presented to the federal agency whichever comes first. The Magistrate found that plaintiffs had not waited six months after filing an administrative claim and had not received a written denial before filing suit. In the Fifth Circuit the FTCA's administrative-exhaustion requirement is a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing suit and absent compliance with the statute's requirement the district court lacks jurisdiction over the dispute.
The Magistrate recommended dismissal of the suit. Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing a suit which deprived the Court of subject matter jurisdiction.
D. Why Is This Important
- Before filing a suit to recover under the Federal Torts Claims Act administrative remedies must be exhausted.
- An early plan and assessment of the incident can help identify potential procedural problems before filing suit.
W. Brett Mason is a Member at Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann L.L.C. and advises companies doing business in Louisiana in their desire to evaluate and manage maritime risk by counseling them on changes in law and protecting their interests should a dispute arise.