A visitor to a national park died as a result of an attack by a mountain goat. Plaintiff alleged that park officials breached their duty of reasonable care by failing to destroy an aggressive mountain goat years earlier.
The government was immune from liability, however. The Appellate Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The government’s failure to destroy the goat before the deceased’s visit fell within the “discretionary function” exception to liability. The federal government was entitled to sovereign immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act’s discretionary function exception.
Park officials knew about aggressive mountain goats in the Park as early as 2006, and they warned visitors of the danger. By 2010, visitors were reporting an aggressive goat. Park personnel tried aversion conditioning and considered moving the goat.
Plaintiff and her now-deceased husband were attacked; officials destroyed a 370-pound goat with bloody horns. Plaintiff sued the U.S. government and the National Park Service under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) alleging a breach of duty by failing to timely destroy the goat.
The district court dismissed under F.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) lack of federal subject-matter jurisdiction; the Appellate Court affirmed.
The Appellate Court considered immunity under the FTCA’s “discretionary function” exception; the Court explored whether there existed a statute or policy that required the Service to destroy the goat before the attack. The Service’s “Management Policies” manual was mandatory; pursuant to the manual, saving human life was the priority. But this was subject to the sometimes conflicting requirements of the Organic Act of 1916, requiring that discretionary management activities be undertaken only to the extent that they do not impair park resources.
The government’s freedom to address hazards is restricted by what is “practicable and consistent with congressionally designated purposes and mandates,” so numerous factors must be considered, while also ensuring human safety. The manual included guidance regarding non-native species (including mountain goats), but did not require action concerning an exotic animal that was threatening public safety. The Park’s Nuisance and Hazardous Management Animal Plan did not require action and the Park’s Mountain Goat Action Plan did not specify incident management techniques. As a result, no statute, regulation, or policy required Park officials to destroy the goat prior to the death, resulting in discretion.
The Court considered whether the judgment employed by Park officials was the type the discretionary function exception was designed to shield – namely, government actions flowing from social, economic, and political policy. The Park argued that the public valued the mountain goats, which supported implementation of solely non-lethal management, and while human safety is a priority, the means to achieve this was within the government’s discretion.
The Court found that the decision to use non-lethal methods to manage the aggressive goat was susceptible to policy analysis, and the discretionary function exception applied.
Cite: Chadd v. U.S. National Park Service (9th Cir., filed July 27, 2015) 12-36023
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