337 U.S. 49 (1949), 388, Brooks v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 388
Citation:337 U.S. 49, 69 S.Ct. 918, 93 L.Ed. 1200
Party Name:Brooks v. United States
Case Date:May 16, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 49

337 U.S. 49 (1949)

69 S.Ct. 918, 93 L.Ed. 1200



United States

No. 388

United States Supreme Court

May 16, 1949

Argued March 2, 1949




1. That a person was a member of the armed forces at the time of the accident does not prevent recovery of a judgment against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act for his death or injury (not incident to his services in the armed forces) resulting from the negligence of an employee of the Government. Pp. 50-53.

2. This does not necessarily mean that the amount payable under servicemen's benefit laws should not be deducted, or taken into consideration, when a serviceman obtains a judgment against the Government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Pp. 53-54.

169 F.2d 840 reversed.

A District Court gave judgment against the Government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 60 Stat. 842, 28 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) § 931 (now § 2674), for the death of one member of the armed forces and the injury of another (not incident to their service) resulting from the negligence of an employee of the Government. The Court of Appeals reversed. 169 F.2d 840. This Court granted certiorari. 335 U.S. 901. Reversed and remanded, p. 54.

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MURPHY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 921, 60 Stat. 842, now 28 U.S.C. § 26 1. The question is whether members of the United States armed forces can recover under that Act for injuries not incident to their service. The District Court for the Western District of North Carolina entered judgment against the Government, rendering an unreported opinion, but the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, in a divided decision. 169 F.2d 840. We brought the case here on certiorari because of its importance as an interpretation of the Act.

The facts are these. Welker Brooks, Arthur Brooks, and their father, James Brooks, were riding in their automobile along a public highway in North Carolina on a dark, rainy night in February, 1945. Arthur was driving. He came to a full stop before entering an intersection, and proceeded across the nearer lane of the intersecting road. Seconds later, the car was struck from the left by a United States Army truck, driven by a civilian employee of the Army. Arthur Brooks was killed; Welker and his father were badly injured.

Welker and the administrator of Arthur's estate brought actions against the United States in the District Court. The District Judge tried the causes without a jury and found negligence on the part of the truck driver. The Government moved to dismiss on the ground that Welker and his deceased brother were in the armed forces of the United States at the time of the accident, and were therefore barred from recovery. The Court denied the motion, entered a $25,425 judgment for the decedent's estate, and a $4,000 judgment for Welker.1 On appeal,

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however, the Government's argument persuaded the Court of Appeals to reverse the judgment, Judge Parker dissenting.

We agree with Judge Parker. The statute's terms are clear. They provide for District Court jurisdiction over any claim founded on negligence brought against the United States. We are not persuaded that "any claim" means "any claim but that of servicemen." The statute does contain twelve exceptions. § 421. None excludes petitioners' claims. One is for claims arising in a foreign country. A second excludes claims arising out of combatant activities of the military or naval forces, or the Coast Guard, during time of war. These and other exceptions are too lengthy, specific, and close to the present problem to take away petitioners' judgments. Without resorting to an automatic maxim of construction, such exceptions make it clear to us that Congress knew what it was about when it used the term "any claim." It would be absurd to believe that Congress did not have the servicemen in mind in 1946, when this statute was passed. The overseas and combatant activities exceptions make this plain.

More than the language and framework of the act support this view. There were eighteen tort claims bills introduced in Congress between 1925 and 1935.2 All but two3 contained exceptions denying recovery to members of the armed forces. When the present Tort Claims Act

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was first introduced, the exception concerning servicemen had been dropped.4 What remained from previous bills was an exclusion of all claims for which compensation was provided by the World War Veterans' Act of 1924, 43 Stat. 607, 38 U.S.C. § 421, et seq., compensation for injury or death occurring in the first World War. H.R. 181, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. When H.R. 181 was incorporated into the Legislative Reorganization Act, the last vestige of the exclusion for members of the armed forces disappeared. See also Note, 1 Syracuse L.Rev. 87, 93-94.

The Government envisages dire consequences should we reverse the judgment.5 A battle commander's poor judgment, an army surgeon's slip of hand, a defective jeep which causes injury, all...

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