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On April 29, 2019, the Supreme Court decided 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 Gary Thacker and killing Szozda. The Thackers sued TVA for negligence. The district court dismissed their 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,” and immunity therefore applied.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the judgement of the Eleventh Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings.  In an opinion delivered by Justice Kagan, the Court held that the TVA’s sue-and-be-sued clause, which waives sovereign immunity, is not subject to a discretionary-function exception.  Rather, on remand the court below should consider whether the conduct alleged to be negligent is governmental or commercial in nature. If it is commercial, immunity does not apply.  If it is governmental, immunity may apply--but only if prohibiting the kind of suit in question is necessary to avoid grave interference with the governmental function at issue.

To discuss the case, we have Richard Peltz-Steele, Professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law.