Sheridan v. United States

487 U. S. 392

June 24, 1988

Some soldiers failed to keep control of another soldier who was drunk and had a gun. He drunkenly shot some people in a car. The injured people in the car sued. The Federal Tort Claim Act (FTCA) barred torts against government agents where the claim arose out of assault and battery. The government claimed that the drunken soldier’s assault and battery was the fount of the claim, so it had to fail, even if the other soldiers had acted negligently. The injured people claimed that the assailant was not acting within the scope of his employment, so the only true government action did in fact arise from negligence.

The Court ruled 6-3 that the FTCA did not bar the tort claim. Stevens argued that a negligence claim against the government would not “arise” from assault and battery if the assailant had not been connected with the government at all. Because the assailant was not acting within the scope of his employment, there seemed no reason to distinguish the two cases merely due to the accident that the assailant happened to be on the government payroll. Thus, if negligence was the only alleged government action, a FTCA claim could go forward even if it incidentally involved assault and battery that was not government action.

In a concurrence, White confessed that he had once joined an opinion which suggested the opposite of what the majority ruled. Nonetheless, White gamely admitted that he had changed his mind. Kennedy, concurring in judgment, worried that the majority was on the road to obliterating the assault and battery exception from the FTCA entirely, but felt that the facts of the current case warranted allowing the claim to proceed. He also faulted the dissent for its contention that all claims involving assault in their fact patterns would have to be barred.

O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist and Scalia, dissented. She contended that when assault and battery were the direct cause of the injuries complained of, the FTCA flatly banned any claims. She charged the majority with both ignoring and twisting precedents to support its conclusion, and also argued that legislative history supported her own point of view.

I’ve stated my views on these kinds of cases a few times already, but I will do so again. I really hate torts and broad tort liability. But, even so, I hate government immunity even more. Thus, I can only cheer on the majority, and even congratulate Justice White for owning up to a change of heart.

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