The Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday made it easier for people to sue the federal government for negligence, in a decision that could affect military veterans with claims of medical malpractice.
The justices, voting 5-4, ruled in two cases the deadlines for filing such lawsuits can be extended if plaintiffs tried their best to comply or simply failed to learn about important information before a deadline.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion that combined the cases and upheld rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the deadlines were somewhat flexible under the federal law that deals with lawsuits against the government.
The Obama administration argued that Congress intended the deadlines to be firm and that the government should not leave itself open to old claims indefinitely.
But Kagan said Congress did not clearly indicate it wanted those deadlines to be iron-clad when it passed the Federal Tort Claims Act. "The time limits in the FTCA are just time limits, nothing more," Kagan wrote. Judges have discretion to extend the deadlines, she said.
The cases split the court along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining his four more liberal colleagues in the majority.
In a dissent supporting the Obama administration, Justice Samuel Alito said, "The statutory text, its historical roots, and more than a century of precedents show that this absolute bar is not subject to equitable tolling," a term for a judge's discretion in these cases. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with Alito.
One case stemmed from a fatal traffic accident on Interstate 10 in Phoenix in which a car passed through a safety barrier into oncoming traffic. The plaintiff, Marlene June, represents the child of one of two people killed in the crash. June claimed that the Federal Highway Administration made her wait more than two years before she was allowed to depose officials and uncover evidence that the barrier had failed a crash test. By then, the two-year deadline for filing an administrative claim had passed.
The other case involved a Hong Kong woman who sued the Immigration and Naturalization Service after she was detained in Oregon, strip-searched and deported. A lower court said Kwai Fun Wong's federal lawsuit was barred because it was filed more than six months after the INS denied her initial claim for damages. She had blamed her delay on faulty instructions from the court.
A number of veterans groups filed briefs in the case warning that a strict interpretation of the deadlines would harm veterans filing medical malpractice and other negligence cases against the government. Many of these cases are filed under the law at issue in Wednesday's decision. The Paralyzed Veterans of America and other groups said in one brief that veterans unwittingly miss their deadlines for filing claims because of the Department of Veterans Affairs has created a confusing process.