Discretionary Acts
The FTCA (and most state tort claims acts) preserve immunity from tort liability for the discretionary acts of government employees. This discretionary function exception is perhaps the most notable and complex exception to FTCA liability.
A discretionary function is an act involving an exercise of personal judgment. The basis for the discretionary function exception to the FTCA is the legislative branch's desire to prevent judicial second-guessing through tort actions of legislative and administrative decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy. The federal government retains immunity from tort liability for itself and its employees for the performance or nonperformance of discretionary functions. This immunity is granted when the act in question requires the exercise of judgment in carrying out official duties. Discretionary immunity applies unless a plaintiff can show that a reasonable person in the official's position would have known that the action was illegal or beyond the scope of that official's legal authority. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).
U.S. v. Varig Airlines, 467 U.S. 797 (1984) is a major case concerning the discretionary function. Here, the federal government was not held liable in a negligence action. A plane caught fire in midair and although it landed safely, many on board died from asphyxiation. The airline and survivors brought suit against the federal government for negligently certifying that the airplane met the applicable federal safety standards based upon a spot-check which did not include every aspect of safety. The Supreme Court held that the inspection was discretionary, and the government was therefore not liable. The Court did not want to involve itself with policy and the distribution of limited resources, which is how it viewed the safety inspection policy of only checking certain aspects of the plane for safety.