A divided Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals panel has reversed the dismissal
of claims filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) by cattle producers
alleging that a government employee negligently decimated their cattle herd
by requiring that they plant a toxic seed mixture on pasture land enrolled in a
conservation program; the court found that the negligence allegations were
not barred by the discretionary-function exception to the FTCA’s waiver of
sovereign immunity. Herden v. United States, No. 11-3530 (8th Cir., decided
August 20, 2012). That exception bars liability for any claim based on 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.” It applies where the action “involves an element of judgment
or choice” and “the requisite judgment or choice is the type of government
action Congress intended to protect from the ‘second-guessing’ attendant to
tort suits,” in other words, the action was “susceptible to policy analysis.”

By participating in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, farmers agree to accept a pasture-planting plan designed by technical specialists in exchange for the reimbursement of 90 percent of their costs. A grazing specialist assigned under the program to work with the plaintiffs, a multigeneration family of Minnesota cattle farmers, selected a seed mixture that included two types of grasses and a legume, Alsike Clover. The count of seeds per square foot was far in excess of an applicable field guide that contains planting mixture recommendations, and the plaintiffs allege that they complained about the prescribed amount of clover, which can be toxic to cattle. The specialist stated in his declaration that he did not recall the farmer discussing the clover’s toxicity, but rejected the request to substitute alfalfa due to concerns about difficult growing conditions and that a failed planting would waste program funds.

Cattle grazing the pasture and fed hay harvested from it subsequently
experienced illnesses, birth defects and deaths. The complaint alleges that
the high concentration of clover in the planting mixture caused the harm
and “led to the loss of a multi-generational farming business.” Claiming that
the farmers’ suit was barred by the FTCA’s discretionary-function exception,
the government moved to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
The district court dismissed the suit, finding that the specialist exercised
properly delegated discretion and that the policy goals and considerations
he balanced constituted the type of discretion Congress intended to exempt
from suit.

The Eighth Circuit disagreed, characterizing the specialist’s action as “the final
technical step in a process that has already hammered out the policy and
societal issues embedded in the Program.” That the specialist considered costs
in deciding the appropriate seed mixture was not, according to the court, “a
sufficiently important aspect of seed plant selection to permit characterization
of the decision as a protected economic analysis.” The court remanded
the case for further proceedings. The dissenting judge would have shielded
the government from suit finding that the specialist was called on to weigh
broad environmental as well as cost issues in making his seed selection,
decisions that this judge believed were intended by Congress to be insulated
from suit.

About The Author

For decades, manufacturers, distributors and retailers at every link in the food chain have come to Shook, Hardy & Bacon to partner with a legal team that understands the issues they face in today's evolving food production industry. Shook attorneys work with some of the world's largest food, beverage and agribusiness companies to establish preventative measures, conduct internal audits, develop public relations strategies, and advance tort reform initiatives.