Government contractors should take note of the Fifth Circuit’s June 30, 2021 decision in Taylor Energy Co. v. Luttrell, which reaffirmed that contractors can enjoy a broad immunity from third-party liabilities—known as “derivative sovereign immunity,” or “Yearsley immunity.” Yearsley immunity emanates from Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Const. Co., an 80-year-old Supreme Court decision, which established that a contractor is immune when (i) it performed acts pursuant to a valid authorization of Congress and (ii) the contractor did not exceed the scope of that authority.
In Taylor Energy, the court dismissed claims arising out of an oil spill containment project in the Gulf of Mexico. The basic claim in the suit was that the contractor failed to effectively remediate and contain the oil. The Fifth Circuit found that the government: (i) provided direction to the contractor through the statement of work, in the form of “goals” and specific contract deliverables and deadlines; and (ii) periodically met with the contractor and reviewed and approved the work during performance. Based on these core facts, the court held the contractor was immune. The court held that it was irrelevant that the statement of work was “barebones,” and that the contractor—rather than the government—designed certain elements of the remediation effort. Following the Fourth Circuit’s 2018 decision in Cunningham v. GDIT, the Taylor Energy decision is another appellate court victory for contractors in the wake of the Supreme Court reaffirming Yearsley’s core principles in Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez.