On January 14, 2019, the Supreme Court heard argument in Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority, a case involving a dispute over the “discretionary-function exception” to waivers of federal sovereign immunity.
In 2013, Anthony Szozda and Gary and Venida Thacker were participating in a fishing tournament on the Tennessee River. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had a crew near the river, trying to raise a downed power line that had partially fallen into the river instead of crossing over it. The crew attempted to lift the conductor out of the water concurrent with Szozda and the Thackers passing through the river at a high rate of speed. The conductor struck both Thacker and Szozda, causing serious injury to Thacker and killing Szozda. The Thackers sued TVA for negligence. The district court dismissed the Thackers’ complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
On appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that judgment. Although the act creating the TVA waives sovereign immunity from tort suits, the Court held that the waiver does not apply where the TVA was engaged in governmental functions that were discretionary in nature. Applying a test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Court determined that the TVA’s challenged conduct fell within this “discretionary-function exception” here, and immunity therefore applied.
The Supreme Court granted the Thackers’ subsequent petition for certiorari to address whether the Eleventh Circuit erred in using a discretionary-function test derived from the Federal Tort Claims Act rather than the test set forth in Federal Housing Authority v. Burr, when testing the immunity of governmental “sue and be sued” entities (like the Tennessee Valley Authority) from the plaintiffs’ claims.
To discuss the case, we have Richard Peltz-Steele, Professor at University of Massachusetts School of Law.