484 U. S. 292
January 13, 1988
William Erwin was working at an Army Depot when he he came into contact with some improperly stored soda ash, and suffered horrific injuries. When Erwin attempted to sue the Depot supervisors, they claimed tort immunity as government officials. Erwin argued that such low level government officials only had immunity when they exercised discretionary functions.
Unanimously, the Supreme Court agreed. Marshall reiterated the importance of government officials being shielded from vexatious litigation, but acknowledged the sad tradeoff that meritorious claims were also barred. He held that only discretionary actions should be shielded, because they offered the most potential for frivolous suits. Marshall also rejected the claim that all actions not specifically mandated by statute were discretionary, and said that the term ‘discretionary’ should be interpreted in a more narrow fashion.
As I said in my year-end review of the previous term, it’s extremely hard to get me to root for expanding tort liability. But if this expansion comes at the expense of government immunity, I am 100% for it. As Marshall succinctly put it: “absolute immunity contravenes the basic tenet that individuals be held accountable for their wrongful conduct.” Those simple words of truth cannot be repeated often enough. I expect this case to be a strong contender for this year’s Deuteronomy 16:20 Prize.