328 U.S. 256 (1946), 630, United States v. Causby

Docket Nº:No. 630
Citation:328 U.S. 256, 66 S.Ct. 1062, 90 L.Ed. 1206
Party Name:United States v. Causby
Case Date:May 27, 1946
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 256

328 U.S. 256 (1946)

66 S.Ct. 1062, 90 L.Ed. 1206

United States

v.

Causby

No. 630

United States Supreme Court

May 27, 1946

Argued May 1, 1946

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CLAIMS

Syllabus

Respondents owned a dwelling and a chicken farm near a municipal airport. The safe path of glide to one of the runways of the airport passed directly over respondents' property at 83 feet, which was 67 feet above the house, 63 feet above the barn and 18 feet above the highest tree. It was used 4% of the time in taking off and 7% of the time in landing. The Government leased the use of the airport for a term of one month commencing June 1, 1942, with a provision for renewals until June 30, 1967, or six months after the end of the national emergency, whichever was earlier. Various military aircraft of the United States used the airport. They frequently came so close to respondents' property that they barely missed the tops of trees, the noise was startling, and the glare from their landing lights lighted the place up brightly at night. This destroyed the use of the property as a chicken farm and caused loss of sleep, nervousness, and fright on the part of respondents. They sued in the Court of Claims to recover for an alleged taking of their property and for damages to their poultry business. The Court of Claims found that the Government had taken an easement over respondents' property, and that the value of the property destroyed and the easement taken was $2,000; but it made no finding as to the precise nature or duration of the easement.

Held:

1. A servitude has been imposed upon the land for which respondents are entitled to compensation under the Fifth Amendment. Pp.260-267.

(a) The common law doctrine that ownership of land extends to the periphery of the universe has no place in the modern world. Pp. 260-261.

(b) The air above the minimum safe altitude of flight prescribed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority is a public highway and part of the public domain, as declared by Congress in the Air Commerce Act of 1926, as amended by the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. Pp. 260-261, 266.

(c) Flights below that altitude are not within the navigable air space which Congress placed within the public domain, even though they are within the path of glide approved by the Civil Aeronautics Authority. Pp. 263-264.

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(d) Flights of aircraft over private land which are so low and frequent as to be a direct and immediate interference with the enjoyment and use of the land are as much an appropriation of the use of the land as a more conventional entry upon it. Pp. 261-262, 264-267.

2. Since there was a taking of private property for public use, the claim was "founded upon the Constitution," within the meaning of § 141(1) of the Judicial Code, and the Court of Claims had jurisdiction to hear and determine it. P. 267.

3. Since the court's findings of fact contain no precise description of the nature or duration of the easement taken, the judgment is reversed, and the cause is remanded to the Court of Claims so that it may make the necessary findings. Pp. 267-268.

(a) An accurate description of the easement taken is essential, since that interest vests in the United States. P. 267.

(b) Findings of fact on every "material issue" are a statutory requirement, and a deficiency in the findings cannot be rectified by statements in the opinion. Pp. 267-268.

(c) A conjecture in lieu of a conclusion from evidence would not be a proper foundation for liability of the United States. P. 268.

104 Ct.Cls. 342, 60 F.Supp. 751, reversed and remanded.

The Court of Claims granted respondents a judgment for the value of property destroyed and damage to their property resulting from the taking of an easement over their property by low-flying military aircraft of the United States, but failed to include in its findings of fact a specific description of the nature or duration of the easement. 104 Ct.Cls. 342, 60 F.Supp. 751. This Court granted certiorari. 327 U.S. 775. Reversed and remanded, p. 268.

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DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a case of first impression. The problem presented is whether respondents' property was taken within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment by frequent and regular flights of army and navy aircraft over respondents' land at low altitudes. The Court of Claims held that there was a taking, and entered judgment for respondent, one judge dissenting. 60 F.Supp. 751. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted because of the importance of the question presented.

Respondents own 2.8 acres near an airport outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. It has on it a dwelling house, and also various outbuildings which were mainly used for raising chickens. The end of the airport's northwest-southeast runway is 2,220 feet from respondents' barn and 2,275 feet from their house. The path of glide to this runway passes directly over the property -- which is 100 feet wide and 1,200 feet long. The 30 to 1 safe glide angle1 approved by the Civil Aeronautics Authority2 passes over this property at 83 feet, which is 67 feet above the house, 63 feet above the barn and 18 feet above the highest tree.3 The use by the United States of this airport is pursuant to a lease executed in May, 1942, for a term commencing June 1, 1942 and ending June 30, 1942, with a provision for renewals until June 30, 1967, or six

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months after the end of the national emergency, whichever is the earlier.

Various aircraft of the United States use this airport -- bombers, transports, and fighters. The direction of the prevailing wind determines when a particular runway is used. The northwest-southeast runway in question is used about four percent of the time in taking off and about seven percent of the time in landing. Since the United States began operations in May, 1942, its four-motored heavy bombers, other planes of the heavier type, and its fighter planes have frequently passed over respondents' land buildings in considerable numbers and rather close together. They come close enough at times to appear barely to miss the tops of the trees, and at times so close to the tops of the trees as to blow the old leaves off. The noise is startling. And, at night, the glare from the [66 S.Ct. 1065] planes brightly lights up the place. As a result of the noise, respondents had to give up their chicken business. As many as six to ten of their chickens were killed in one day by flying into the walls from fright. The total chickens lost in that manner was about 150. Production also fell off. The result was the destruction of the use of the property as a commercial chicken farm. Respondents are frequently deprived of their sleep, and the family has become nervous and frightened. Although there have been no airplane accidents on respondents' property, there have been several accidents near the airport and close to respondents' place. These are the essential facts found by the Court of Claims. On the basis of these facts, it found that respondents' property had depreciated in value. It held that the United States had taken an easement over the property on June 1, 1942, and that the value of the property destroyed and the easement taken was $2,000.

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I. The United States relies on the Air Commerce Act of 1926, 44 Stat. 568, 49 U.S.C. § 171 et seq., as amended by the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, 52 Stat. 973, 49 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. Under those statutes, the United States has "complete and exclusive national sovereignty in the air space" over this country. 49 U.S.C. § 176(a). They grant any citizen of the United States "a public right of freedom of transit in air commerce4 through the navigable air space of the United States." 49 U.S.C. § 403. And "navigable air space" is defined as "airspace above the minimum safe altitudes of flight prescribed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority." 49 U.S.C. § 180. And it is provided that "such navigable airspace shall be subject to a public right of freedom of interstate and foreign air navigation." Id. It is therefore argued that, since these flights were within the minimum safe altitudes of flight which had been prescribed, they were an exercise of the declared right of travel through the airspace. The United States concludes that, when flights are made within the navigable airspace without any physical invasion of the property of the landowners, there has been no taking of property. It says that, at most, there was merely incidental damage occurring as a consequence of authorized air navigation. It also argues that the landowner does not own superadjacent airspace which he has not subjected to possession by the erection of structures or other occupancy. Moreover, it is argued that, even if the United States took airspace owned by respondents, no compensable damage was shown. Any damages are said to be merely consequential for which no compensation may be obtained under the Fifth Amendment.

It is ancient doctrine that at common law ownership of the land extended to the periphery of the universe -- cujus

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est solum ejus est usque and coelum.5 But that doctrine has no place in the modern world. The air is a public highway, as Congress has declared. Were that not true, every transcontinental flight would subject the operator to countless trespass suits. Common sense revolts at the idea. To recognize such private claims to the airspace would clog these highways, seriously interfere with their control and development in the public interest, and transfer into private ownership that to which only the public has a just claim.

But that general principle does not control the present case. For the...

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