United States v. Olson

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Joseph Olson et al.
LOCATION: Forbidden Wheels Motorcycle Club

DOCKET NO.: 04-759
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2005-2006)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 546 US 43 (2005)
GRANTED: Mar 07, 2005
ARGUED: Oct 12, 2005
DECIDED: Nov 08, 2005

Deanne E. Maynard - argued the cause for Petitioner
Thomas G. Cotter - argued the cause for Respondents

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.


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?

Media for United States v. Olson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 12, 2005 in United States v. Olson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - November 08, 2005 in United States v. Olson

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has the opinion in No. 04-759, United States versus Olson.

Stephen G. Breyer:

The subject of this case is the Federal Tort Claims Act.

It’s an Act that, by waiving sovereign immunity, permits an injured person to bring tort suits against the United States.

It says that those tort suits can be brought, “under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable under state law”.


The plaintiffs in this case are Arizona mineworkers, who say that the negligence of federal mine inspectors helped bring about the mine accident that seriously injured them.

We are now reviewing a decision of the 9th Circuit on this matter, which held two things: first, it said mine inspection is a, “unique governmental function”, a function for which there is no private-person analogy; second, it said that the mineworkers’ lawsuit can go forward against the United States anyway, because, it said, under similar circumstances a, “state or municipal entity” would be liable under Arizona state law.

In our view, the 9th Circuit’s two holdings both depart from well-established law.

First, the Act says the United States can be held liable if a private person would, in similar circumstances, be liable under state law; it doesn’t say if a state or municipal entity, under similar circumstances, would be held liable under state law.

And in 1955, a case in this Court called Indian Towing Company, the Court said the words mean what they say: it’s tort law governing private people, not tort law governing state or municipal entities that has to determine liability under the Act, and we found no authority to the contrary, either in this Court or any other lower court outside the 9th Circuit.

The second, the 9th Circuit held there are no private-person analogies to the federal mine inspection; but Indian Towing said the opposite.

That case involved a claim that the Coast Guard was negligent in failing to inspect a lighthouse.

The Court said that there is a private person to a lighthouse.

The private person is the person who undertakes a good-Samaritan obligation.

So if there are private-person analogies for lighthouses, we think there must be private-person analogies for mine inspections, private inspections.

Indeed, the Government concedes as much, and lower courts outside the 9th Circuit all have consistently found private-person analogies in similar circumstances.

We consequently vacate the 9th Circuit decision, and we remand the case for further consideration.

The decision is unanimous.