Cope v. Scott (D.C. Circuit Court of App. 1995)

Procedural History: Cope appeals a grant of summary judgment against him in favor of the government. Cope sued both Scott and the National Park Service. He settled with Scott and this Cope alleged that the National Park Service failed to adequately maintain the roads and failed to post adequate warning signs. The District Court concluded the government’s alleged negligent actions were “discretionary functions” immune from suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

Facts: Beach Drive is a north-south route through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., and is maintained by the National Park Service. It was originally a scenic road with many sharp curves, but has become a convenient commuter road, connecting the northern suburbs to downtown D.C.. Cope was driving north along Beach Drive on a rainy spring evening and as Roland Scott rounded a curve, his car slid into Cope’s lane and hit Cope’s vehicle. The accident report stated that the road was a “worn polished surface” that was “slick when wet.” A study was recently conducted that designated this stretch of Beach Drive as an accident-prone area, and the study recommended a re-pavement of the road with coarse aggregate. 50% of accidents in this strech happened while the road was wet, while only 18% of national accidents occurred in wet conditions. However, the project was listed as 33rd on a maintenance priority list of 80 projects.

Issue: Was the road maintenance and displaying of signage covered under “discretionary functions” immune from suit under the FTCA?

Was road maintenance or displaying of signage “essentially political, social, or economic?”

Rules:

FTCA:

  • 2680. The provisions of this chapter and § 1346(b) of this title shall not apply to—

(a) Any claim based upon an act or omission of an employee of the Government, exercising due care, in the execution of a statute or regulation, whether or not such statute or regulation be valid, or based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government, whether or not the discretion involved be abused.

Application: A discretionary function may be applicable where there is no specific prescription and the government employee has a choice, if the decision is not “essentially political, social, or economic.”

Conclusion: On allegations of negligent road maintenance, we affirm the District Court’s decision that large road maintenance projects are bound by economic policy and are therefore immune from suit under the FTCA. With respect to improper signage, how to post signs did not implicate “political, social, or economic” policy considerations and so is not immune from suit under the FTCA exemption.

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