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1st Circuit Affirms Federal Tort Claims Judgment Against FBI in Bulger Cases

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit has affirmed the judgments entered against the Federal Bureau of Investigation, (FBI), under the Federal Tort Claims Act, (FTCA). In the most recent chapter of the various civil claims against the FBI stemming from murders committed by Boston mobster and FBI informant James "Whitey" Bulger, the Appellate Court affirmed Massachusetts federal district court awards in favor of the estates of Debra Davis, Deborah Hussey, and Louis R. Litif, as well as individuals Anna Litif, Luane Litif, and Lee Litif.

All named plaintiffs had sought damages under FTCA for murders of relatives which "stem(med) from FBI agents' sheltering of Bulger and his associate Stephen Flemmi over several decades," according to the Appellate Court's opinion. Boston FBI agent John Connolly had previously been found to have revealed the names of numerous police informants to Bulger, including murder victims Litif, Davis and Hussey.

The Litif plaintiffs had been awarded damages totaling $1.5 million: $500,000 to Litif's daughter, $250,000 to Litif's son, $50,000 to Litif's wife, and $350,000 to Litif's estate. In the Davis and Hussey cases, the court awarded the Davis estate $1 million, the Davis and Hussey estates $350,000 each, and other smaller sums for funeral expenses.

The FTCA is a limited waiver of the sovereign immunity from suit that the U.S. enjoys, permitting lawsuits for "personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment... if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred."

In the Litif cases, the government had contested liability, stating that the claim had been filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations, that there was insufficient proof to establish that the FBI leak of information to Bulger occurred and that Bulger killed Litif, and that the estate failed to meet its burden to establish liability. Unlike the decisions in other Bulger related claims, Donahue v. U.S., 634 F.3d 615 (1st Cir. 2011), and Rakes v. U.S. 442 F.3d 7 (1st Cir. 2006), which barred similar FTCA claims, the court found that plaintiffs had not received actual notice of their claims prior to September 10, 1999: "Specifically, they did not know that Litif was an informant, that he was murdered by Bulger and Flemmi, that this occurred because he was threatening to incriminate them, and that Bulger and Flemmi knew these facts because (FBI agent) Connolly so warned them."

In the Davis and Hussey cases, the government had contested the question of proximate cause – that the action of the FBI proximately caused the murders of the named plaintiffs. After reviewing Massachusetts law as to causation, the Appellate Court noted that the "agents knew, as the prior chronology demonstrates, ... that (they) were protecting extraordinarily violent men who had already seemingly murdered others... Given (Massachusetts') definition of foreseeability, it is easy to conclude that Davis and Hussey's deaths were the type of potential risks – violent crimes by Bulger and Flemmi – that made the FBI's conduct negligent in the first instance."

The Court of Appeals also turned aside the government's contention that the district court award was excessive, and not supported by the evidence, finding that although a certain amount of subjectivity is unavoidable, similar cases had similar awards. The issue of sanctions against the U.S. for bad-faith pleading was remanded to the district court for further action. See: Litif v. United States, 670 F.3d 39 (1st Cir. 2012), Davis v. United States, 670 F.3d 48 (1st Cir. 2012).

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Related legal cases

Davis v. United States

Litif v. United States