The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA): A Brief Overview

It is well-settled and widely recognized that when an individual is injured by another person’s negligence, the injured person may bring a claim to recover money and compensate for their injuries.

What may not be so well understood is that someone’s ability to bring a civil lawsuit, and the way in which that lawsuit may be brought, can be dictated by the negligent person’s employer. For instance, if you are injured by someone employed by the federal government, your claim may be subject to a very different set of rules and requirements.

The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) A brief overview

The Tradition: Sovereign immunity

For most of our country’s history, the doctrine of sovereign immunity has barred people from filing lawsuits against the United States arising out of the negligent acts of federal officers or employees.   The doctrine of sovereign immunity ordinarily bars individuals from suing the United States (and its officers and employees) without its consent.

The Change: Federal Tort Claims Act

With the enactment of the Federal Tort Claim Act (FTCA) in 1946, Congress changed that tradition.  Now, under the FTCA, individual citizens may file suit against the federal government to obtain compensation for the negligence of its employees.  With certain exceptions, the FTCA authorizes claims that are:

(1) Against the federal government

(2) For money damages

(3) For injury to or loss of property, or personal injury or death

(4) Caused by a federal employee’s negligent or wrongful act or omission

(5) While acting within the scope of employment

(6) Under circumstances where the federal government, if a person, would be liable in the place where the negligence occurred.

However, the federal government places limitations on when an individual may bring this type of lawsuit against the United States. For example, the federal government places additional procedural requirements that must be met before a lawsuit can be brought. The government also limits the types of claims and damages that may be pursued. Moreover, FTCA claims are typically decided by a federal judge rather than a jury.


The Procedure: FTCA nuances

The United States is the Defendant.

A claim against the FTCA is not brought in the name of the individual government actor that caused the injury. This is a change from the typical lawsuit in Virginia. For FTCA claims, any negligence suit must be brought with the United States identified as the defendant. In these cases, the FTCA substitutes the United States in place of the individual employee.

The FTCA remedy is “exclusive of any other civil action or proceeding for money damages” that might otherwise be available against the individual actor. Accordingly, the individual employee enjoys immunity from tort liability committed within the scope of employment. In other words, if an injury falls into the category of an FTCA claim, the person bringing the lawsuit MUST bring the lawsuit using the FTCA procedures covered in this article, and the government employee who is the defendant in that lawsuit is protected from individual responsibility because the responsibility falls on the employer.

Exhaustion Requirements.

With limited exception, a plaintiff may not file suit against the United States in a FTCA claim without having presented the claim to the appropriate federal agency. The appropriate federal agency is the one whose employees are alleged to have been negligent.

Once the claim is submitted, the plaintiff must wait for the agency to either deny the claim or wait out a full 6 months without any denial before they may file suit. The purpose of the exhaustion requirement is to provide the federal government with the opportunity to resolve claims and encourage settlements.

Without meeting the exhaustion requirement in most cases, there is no standing to bring suit. The claim must be presented to the appropriate federal agency within two years of the negligence taking place.

The Recoverable Damages are Limited.

Generally speaking, the damages that a plaintiff may recover in a personal injury action against the United States are determined by the law of the state in which the negligence occurred. So, if the negligence occurred in Virginia, then Virginia law dictates which damages the plaintiff may recover.

Recoverable Damages

But that general rule faces several notable exceptions:

  • Punitive damages are not recoverable. “Punitive” refers to damages that are recoverable when the defendant’s actions arise to the level of willful and wanton negligence. Often, punitive damages arise in cases involving drunk drivers. Even though Virginia permits recovery of punitive damages in a personal injury case under certain circumstances, that provision of Virginia law does not apply to FTCA cases.
  • No prejudgment interest. In a typical personal injury case in Virginia, a plaintiff may ask that the jury award prejudgment interest on the verdict. Charging interest helps to compensate for the time that the injured plaintiff had to go without compensation.  In an FTCA case, however, prejudgment interest is not permitted.
  • No attorney’s fees. The FTCA bars most awards of attorney’s fees against the United States. In some instances, a prevailing party can request that the losing party pay for the cost of hiring an attorney. This recovery is not permitted in FTCA cases meaning that the plaintiff has to pay his or her attorney’s fees from any settlement that the plaintiff receives from the case.
  • Damages are limited to the amount initially requested. In a typical personal injury case, there may be an opportunity for pre-lawsuit negotiations with the insurance company. If those negotiations break down, the plaintiff is not held to any amounts demanded during those discussions.  Relatedly, even if a plaintiff asks for a certain amount in their initial filings, that request can often be modified up or down to suit the evolving needs of the case.  In a FTCA case, the plaintiff does not enjoy this same flexibility. Generally, the plaintiff is held to the amount requested of the United States in its pre-lawsuit submissions.

The Exceptions: Notable exceptions to the FTCA waiver of sovereign immunity

While Congress has carved out exceptions to its former sovereign immunity, it has also explicitly retained sovereign immunity against certain types of claims.

The Takeaway

If you are injured by a federal employee, your claim is subject to a different set of rules than state personal injury claims.  The skilled lawyers at Allen & Allen can help you navigate these nuances. Call us today for a free case evaluation, at 866-388-1307.