An employer is normally liable for the acts of its employees within the scope of their employment. This means if you get into a motor vehicle accident with a delivery van, you can bring a personal injury lawsuit against the company that owns the van. But what happens when the vehicle is owned by the federal government and operated by one of its employees? In such cases, the law can make it more difficult for injured victims to seek compensation.
Federal Tort Claims Act
The American legal system inherited from its British forefathers the concept of “sovereign immunity.” This means the government cannot be sued in its own courts without its consent. This means you cannot file a personal injury lawsuit against the government unless Congress has adopted some law waiving sovereign immunity.
Congress did just that when it enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in 1947. The FTCA is a blanket waiver of sovereign immunity that makes the federal government liable “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual” for torts committed under state law. In other words, if you are injured in a car accident in New York as the result of a federal employee's negligence, you can sue the federal government under New York law. The case must be heard in a federal court, however.
The FTCA also requires a victim exhaust all “administrative remedies” within the federal government before bringing a personal injury lawsuit. This is a non-negotiable requirement. Since FTCA waives sovereign immunity, its terms must be strictly adhered to without exception.
Marcus v. United States Postal Service
Here is a recent example of the FTCA in application. This case involves a 2012 accident in Suffolk County, New York. The plaintiff was driving his car when he was struck by a van owned and operated by the Postal Service. (Although the U.S. Postal Service is an independent corporation, it is considered part of the federal government for FTCA purposes.) The plaintiff allegedly suffered “serious injuries,” as defined by New York law, as a result of the postal worker's negligence.
The plaintiff sued the Postal Service in federal court in January 2014, just shy of two years after the accident took place. The Postal Service moved to dismiss the case, arguing the plaintiff failed to present an administrative claim before bringing his lawsuit, as required by the FTCA. On May 20, U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bianco granted the Postal Service's motion.
Under the FTCA, a victim must present an administrative claim—in this case, to the Postal Service itself—within two years of the date of the accident. Once the agency acts on the claim, the plaintiff then has six months to file his lawsuit. If neither of these requirements are met, sovereign immunity reasserts itself, and the claim is “forever barred” by law.
Judge Bianco held the plaintiff here “failed to present his administrative claim” to the Postal Service within the two-year time limit. The plaintiff's attorney conceded as much in court. Therefore, even if the plaintiff otherwise had a legitimate basis for his lawsuit, the case cannot be heard in court.
This decision illustrates the importance of strictly adhering to legal filing requirements, which are all the more important when suing a government agency. If you have been in an accident and require the assistance of an experienced New York personal injury lawyer, contact our offices right away.