Bench Trials Under The Federal Tort Claims Act

Under the unique provisions of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), there is no right to a jury trial. What this means is obvious: once an FTCA lawsuit is filed and the United States of America is named as the defendant, if the case cannot be resolved thereafter and a trial is required, the trial will be before a United States District Court judge which will sit, not only as the finder of fact, but also as the Judge of the law. In short, the U.S. District Court Judge will conduct a Bench Trial without the assistance of a jury to determine whether the claimant can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the United States government has committed an actionable tort which has resulted in damages against the claimant. If the claimant proves by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she was injured as a result of the tortious misconduct of a federal employee or agency, then in that event, the court will so rule and then will award appropriate damages caused by the tort.
In considering any claim under the FTCA, obviously, counsel will have to consider whether the U.S. District Court judge to whom the case is assigned is likely to rule favorably on the same. As an example, if the claim involves a medical malpractice claim against the Veterans Administration, the strength or weakness of the claim may convince counsel that a U.S. District Court judge may or may not rule favorably for the claimant. Such considerations obviously are important in considering whether a case should be settled or should be presented to the Trial Court. While the District Court does have the discretion to empanel a jury to render an advisory verdict any decision such a panel might make is not binding and the District Court is required by law to issue a ruling by itself relative to the merits of an FTCA case. Thus, in any case in which a civil claimant sues the United States government for damages caused by a tort committed by a federal agency or employee, counsel should always remember that they will only receive a Bench Trial in such a case and that it is the U.S. District Court that will decide all of the issues in the case.

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