182 F.Supp. 184 (D. Puerto Rico), Civ. 8744, De LeGrand v. United States

Docket Nº:Civ. 8744
Citation:182 F.Supp. 184
Party Name:De LeGrand v. United States
Court:United States District Courts, 1st Circuit, District of Puerto Rico

Page 184

182 F.Supp. 184 (D. Puerto Rico)

Maria Soto DE LEGRAND and Miguel Angel Legrand, Plaintiffs,


UNITED STATES of America, Defendant.

Civ. No. 8744.

United States District Court, D. Puerto Rico.

Date Not Given

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Francisco Ponsa Feliu, Luis Blanco Lugo, and German Rieckehoff, San Juan, Puerto Rico, for plaintiffs.

Francisco A. Gil, Jr., U. S. Atty., San Juan, Puerto Rico, for defendant.

DELEHANT, District Judge (Retired, serving by assignment).

In this action, instituted here under the Federal Tort Claims Act, Title 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346, and 2671 to 2680, inclusive, the plaintiffs join, through a single complaint, in separate demands for judgment against defendant in the sum of $25,000 in behalf of each plaintiff, together with costs. Plaintiff, Maria Soto de Legrand, sues as the mother of Jesus Legrand Soto, deceased, who, being a minor infra, died on March 21, 1953, for damages to her allegedly resulting from his death. Plaintiff, Miguel Angel Legrand, in his own right, sues for damages to him allegedly resulting from personal injuries sustained by him. The claim of each plaintiff is based upon personal injuries, fatal in their consequence to Jesus Legrand Soto, and to plaintiff, Miguel Angel Legrand, painful, expensive, and disabling, by such persons respectively received on March 20, 1953, as direct results of the explosion of 'an explosive contrivance or device' allegedly left and abandoned negligently and wrongfully by the defendant on lands within the United States Naval Reservation in Vieques, Puerto Rico. The defendant admits the occurrence on March 20, 1953, on lands within such reservation of an explosion, and the death of March 21, 1953, in consequence of the explosion, of Jesus Legrand Soto; but it denies all other averments of the complaint, and particularly those charging it with negligence; and, further, alleges that the explosion was caused solely, exclusively and proximately by the fault and negligence of Jesus Legrand Soto and Miguel Angel Legrand, which fault and negligence of Jesus Legrand Soto and Miguel Angel Legrand are also charged by defendant to have constituted contributory negligence. And defendant also avers that the explosion was 'fortuitous' and thus beyond its legal responsibility.

The issues are set out in the complaint and the answer, each of which is brief. Because of their brevity, and with omission in each instance of caption and signature, they are reflected herein in full, the complaint as one footnote 1, the answer

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as another 2. Attention is now directed to the disparity touching the dates of the explosion and of the death of Jesus Legrand Soto, as between the two pleadings. The court, without again referring to that discrepancy, will undertake correctly to reflect those dates in its findings of fact. It is sufficient to observe that the discrepancy in the pleadings has occasioned no practical problem in the submission of the action.

Trial has been had, evidence and testimony, both oral and documentary, have been received, and typewritten briefs of counsel have been presented and filed. All of these, and the original files, have had the court's consideration; and the case is ready for decision. The facts, as found by the court, are first set out.

Vieques is situated in the sea about eight miles distant easterly from the main body of the island of Puerto Rico. Vieques is itself a separate island. While it is irregular in its shape and shore line, it has maximal dimensions of about 21 miles in length and 6 miles in width; and its longer dimension is in a generally east-west direction. However, its easterly extremity lies farther north than its westerly segment. Southerly from it is the Caribbean Sea, and to its north are segments of water related to the ocean. For governmental purposes, it is a part of Puerto Rico. Therefore, its local laws are those of the Commonwealth. It has, however, its own local urban organization, of which the head is an officer designated as its mayor, whose official authority is considered from his testimony to extend throughout the island, which is thus treated as a municipality regardless of its generally rural character.

Located about midway between the easterly and westerly terminal of Vieques,

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and near to its northerly side are two neighboring settlements to which have been given the names 'Santa Maria' and 'Moscou,' of which the former is somewhat the larger and lies slightly north and east of the latter. From the evidence it appears, and is found, that the boundaries of these two settlements are not clearly defined and that they are actually regarded as one community. But on maps of the island they are separately designated, though without definition of their boundaries. The population of each such settlement may not be found from the evidence, except that an informed witness declared that about 800 persons lived in the area of Moscou, although he may have meant in that estimate to include the population of both Moscou and Santa Maria.

Traditionally, Vieques was rural in character. The principal industry was agriculture, and its prime crop was sugar cane. But in substantial numbers, cattle were raised and kept on the island. These were not maintained for ranching, or, as an enterprise of any considerable magnitude, for commercial or speculative, purposes. With possible exceptions 3, they were kept for domestic use, and to support the food supply of families of modest means, especially those of the men employed in the sugar cane growing industry.

About ten or twelve years before the incident out of which this suit arose, the government of the United States initiated a program involving the acquisition of land for military and naval purposes on the island. Some time between 1947 and 1949 4, it carried that program forward through proceedings 5 in the exercise of its right of Eminent Domain. At any rate, with the completion of the condemnation proceedings, and including its acquisitions therein effected, and also its lands theretofore acquired, the United States became, as through 1953 it continued to be, and still is, the owner of approximately 80 percent of the area of the island of Vieques. In general terms, it was disclosed by the evidence that, of the entire land in Vieques, only about 10,000 acres 6, located in a fairly compact portion of the island and in its central section, are not in the ownership of the United States. And of these 10,000 acres, a large, but unestablished, part is owned by the local government or agencies or instrumentalities of it. Only a small part is in strictly private ownership and control. And, even within the 10,000 acre segment, is at least one parcel of slightly more than 500 acres which is owned by the United States, supra.

Generally, and without more exact definition, which upon this record would not be possible, the purpose of the foregoing land acquisition was the provision of the acquired area or areas for training activities under the control of the United States Navy. These training activities included, and largely involved, maneuvers in which personnel were tested and trained,

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and material and ordnance, inclusive of explosives, were experimented with and tried with a view to their appraisal and selection or rejection or improvement, and also to the development of personnel. In the course of its utilization, relatively frequent, though not constant, maneuvers were held upon portions of the taken lands designated broadly as a 'maneuver area.'

From the foregoing, resulted an economic and social disorganization of the population of Vieques as it had existed immediately before the land acquisitions by the United States. The purpose of the acquisitions and the ensuing use by the taker of the lands thereby acquired naturally and inevitably eliminated 7 much of the island's land from utilization for the production of crops by intensive cultivation. And this had the consequence of narrowing, if not altogether withdrawing, the avenues of gainful employment theretofore open to the wage earners of the community. It resulted that some of the population sought new homes and means of livelihood 8 elsewhere. But others remained on Vieques, although many of them in homes at places different from their former residences.

Many of the people who remained on the island continued to keep cows in assistance of their food provision efforts. How far this was true is reflected in the testimony on cross examination of the Manager of the Naval Properties division, appearing as a defendant's witness, that in 1952, the year before the occurrence of the incident in suit, 5,554 cattle were grazed on Vieques Navy land. While that figure was questioned on the basis of superficial observation by a later defense witness, the court finds that it is essentially correct, as being disclosed by regularly kept records.

These cattle were by the United States Naval authorities allowed to graze on lands of the island owned by the United States. Permission for such grazing was granted from time to time by the local administrative representatives of the United States Navy. While no formalized agreement or permission in writing is before the court as an item of evidence, it is shown and found that the local residents owning cattle for which grazing privileges were required, were represented in successive negotiations to that end, and at different times, by a voluntary organization of the owners of the cattle and by a legally constituted land or Agricultural Authority with jurisdiction in Vieques, erected in about 1945 or 1946 9 by the Commonwealth legislature.

When maneuvers were not in progress, or in their preparatory phase, the cattle of the inhabitants of the island were allowed to be pastured on such navy lands suitable for grazing...

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