The Federal Tort Claims Act or "FTCA", (June 25, 1948, ch. 646, Title IV, 62 Stat. 982, "28 U.S.C. Pt.VI Ch.171" and 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)), is a statute enacted by the United States Congress in 1948. "Federal Tort Claims Act" was also previously the official short title passed by the Seventy-ninth Congress on August 2, 1946 as Title IV of the Legislative Reorganization Act, 60 Stat. 842, which was classified principally to chapter 20 (§§ 921, 922, 931-934, 941-946) of former Title 28, Judicial Code and Judiciary. All states have adopted or enacted themselves mirror copies of the FTCA as to themselves.
The FTCA permits private parties to sue the United States in a federal court for most torts committed by persons acting on behalf of the United States. The FTCA constitutes a limited waiver of sovereign immunity.
Liability under the FTCA is limited to "circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). The FTCA exempts, among other things, claims based upon the performance, or failure to perform, a "discretionary function or duty." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a). The FTCA also exempts a number of intentional torts, although the United States is liable for specific intentional torts such as assault, battery, and false imprisonment, if committed by federal law enforcement officers. 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h).
In a nutshell, in the late 1930's while the newly activist federal government was busy fixing the depression and preparing for WWII, they addressed the problem by passing something known as the Federal Tort Claims Act, or FTCA. The catalyst for finally passing the FTCA in 1945 was the crash of the B-25 bomber, lost in the fog, into the side of the Empire State Building.
In finally establishing tort liability against the federal government, the drafters of the FTCA had to keep in mind the reason for sovereign immunity in the first place-governments do a lot of stupid things (start wars, fail to repair levees, etc.) that hurt people, and if folks were able to sue in court for all that stuff it would be totally impractical-the government would be bankrupt and couldn't make sound decisions. It is, after all, the ultimate responsibility of government to strike a balance between competing interests-someone usually benefits and someone else gets hurt. On the other hand, if an IRS agent, in the performance of his or her official duties, goes through a red light and hits your car, Uncle Sam should have to pick up the tab as the employer of the lousy driver.
The solution was arrived at by dividing all government actions into two categories-discretionary and ministerial. This is sometimes referred to as the "discretionary function" test. A discretionary function would be, for example, the decision by the US Air Force to haul jet fuel on public highways in tank trucks. The ministerial function would be doing the actual hauling. So if the Air Force personnel leaves the fill cap loose and the jet fuel leaks all over an exit ramp and causes accidents (this is a case I actually had) the air force is responsible for that. If however, it turns out that using the public highways to haul jet fuel in general is a bad idea, the air force cannot be liable for that, because it is based on a policy decision about how fuel should be hauled. In short, it is negligence in the execution, not the planning, that creates governmental tort liability.
The new FTCA got almost an immediate workout. On April 16, 1947, a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer for the Marshall Plan spontaneously blew up in the port of Texas City, Texas, setting off a nearby ammunition ship, other ships, and fuel storage tanks on shore. Over 500 people were killed, and the harbor at Texas City itself was reduced to a smoldering ruin. The entire scheme about storing and shipping both the fertilizer and ammunition had been undertaken and supervised by the federal government, everybody consequently sued under the FTCA. They lost. The US Supreme Court ruled that even if the plaintiffs could prove that the federal planning had been really, really stupid (which it was) it all fell under the umbrella of "discretionary function" decision making, therefore the feds didn't have to pay squat. The outcry was so great that congress passed special legislation to compensate the victims in Texas City. But congress left the FTCA intact.