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Adkisson v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc.

ELR Citation: 45 ELR 20109
Nos. 14-6207, (6th Cir., 06/02/2015)

The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded a lower court decision dismissing individuals' lawsuit against a government contractor on jurisdictional grounds, holding that the company was not necessarily immune from suit. The case arose out of cleanup and remediation work that an engineering company performed at a coal-fired plant following a December 2008 coal-ash spill. The company managed the on-site work pursuant to a contract with TVA, which owns and operates the plant. Individuals who worked on the coal-ash cleanup filed suit against the company, alleging they suffered negative health impacts as a result. The lower court dismissed the claims, concluding that the company was entitled to government-contractor immunity as a corollary of the discretionary-function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). But the appellate court disagreed. Although the FTCA is a jurisdictional statute, the company's potential immunity derives not from the FTCA but from Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18 (1940), which addressed government-contractor immunity. In the court's opinion, Yearsley immunity is closer in nature to qualified immunity for private individuals under government contract, which is an issue to be reviewed on the merits rather than for jurisdiction. Accordingly, because Yearsley immunity is not jurisdictional, the lower court should have considered the company's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, not for lack of jurisdiction.