UNITED STATES v. OLSON

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
04-759
Petitioner 
United States
Respondent 
Joseph Olson, et al.
Advocates
(argued the cause for Respondents)
(argued the cause for Petitioner)
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Facts of the Case 

Injured workers sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), alleging that federal mine inspectors' negligence helped cause a mine accident. The FTCA authorized private tort actions against the U.S. when the federal government, if a private person in similar circumstances, would be liable according to the law of the place where the incident occurred. The district court dismissed the suit, holding that the allegations failed to show Arizona law would have imposed liability on a private person in like circumstances. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding federal mine inspections were a governmental function with no private analogue. In such cases, the Ninth Circuit held, the FTCA waived sovereign immunity if a state or municipal entity would be held liable under the law where the activity occurred.

Question 

Did the Federal Tort Claims Act waive the United States' sovereign immunity in cases where local law would make a state or municipal entity liable?

Conclusion 
Decision: 9 votes for United States, 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Federal Tort Claims, or Alien Tort Statute

No. In a unanimous opinion delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court held that the United States waived sovereign immunity only where local law would make a "private person" liable in tort, not where local law would make a "state or municipal entity" liable. Nothing in the FTCA's "context, history, or objectives" supported the Ninth Circuit's holding that the act waived sovereign immunity where the United States, if a state or municipal entity, would be liable. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit treated the act's requirement that there be "like circumstances" to require the "same circumstances." Private analogies did, in fact, exist for the federal mine inspectors' conduct.

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UNITED STATES v. OLSON. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 07 July 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2005/2005_04_759>.
UNITED STATES v. OLSON, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2005/2005_04_759 (last visited July 7, 2014).
"UNITED STATES v. OLSON," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed July 7, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2005/2005_04_759.