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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rules that jurisdiction did not exist under Federal Tort Claims Act for wrongful death negligence action alleging that U.S. Postal Service negligently failed to warn decedents that mailboxes involved in fatal motor vehicle accident failed to conform to state and federal safety regulations

On September 27, 2021, in Smith, et al, v. USA, No. 20-11329, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a Georgia negligence case in which the plaintiffs, the administrator of the estates of a father and daughter who died when the car struck two mailboxes, sued the U.S. Postal Service claiming that the mailboxes were out of step with various safety regulations. The plaintiffs sued the United States in federal court under the Federal Tort Claims Act, codified as amended at 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 1402(b), 2401(b), 2671–2680, which waives sovereign immunity for claims against the United States seeking money damages for“injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent orwrongful act or omission” of a federal employee acting within the scope of hisemployment. The Eleventh Circuit pointed to another important limitation on the sovereign immunity waiver provided by the Act: Congress extended jurisdiction only for claims in which “the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). The plaintiffs cited one alleged Georgia tort: they alleged that the mailboxes’ placement was a fixed object hazard to vehicles that violated both state and federal statutes, that the Postal Service was required to notify homeowners if mailboxes did not conform to various safety standards, and that its failure to do so was negligence per se under Georgia law. However, the Eleventh Circuit noted that the duty to notify homeownersexisted only as part of the Postal Operations Manual, and that there were no state or local laws cited by the plaintiffs that require private parties to inform homeowners when their [the homeowners] mailbox supports fail to comply with federal, state, or local requirements. The crucially important fact in this case appears to have been that the mailbox supports were actually owned by private homeowners, not the U.S. Postal Service, which is why the plaintiffs’ entire case was premised on a duty to warn by the U.S. Postal Service.

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