369 U.S. 1 (1962), 59, Richards v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 59
Citation:369 U.S. 1, 82 S.Ct. 585, 7 L.Ed.2d 492
Party Name:Richards v. United States
Case Date:February 26, 1962
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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369 U.S. 1 (1962)

82 S.Ct. 585, 7 L.Ed.2d 492

Richards

v.

United States

No. 59

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 26, 1962

Argued November 15, 1961

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioners are the personal representatives of passengers killed when a commercial airplane crashed in Missouri while en route from Oklahoma to New York. The maximum amount recoverable under the Missouri Wrongful Death Act had either been paid or tendered to them by the airline; but they sued in a Federal District Court in Oklahoma to recover from the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act additional amounts which they claimed to be due them under the Oklahoma Wrongful Death Act, which contains no limitation on the amount a single person may recover from a tortfeasor. They claimed that the Government, through the Federal Aviation Agency, had negligently failed to enforce the terms of the Civil Aeronautics Act and regulations thereunder which prohibited the practices then being used by the airline in its overhaul depot in Oklahoma. The District Court dismissed the complaint and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 2-16.

(a) In the Tort Claims Act, Congress has enacted a rule which requires federal courts, in multistate tort actions, to look in the first instance to the law of the State where the acts of negligence took place. Pp. 6-10.

(b) A reading of the statute as a whole, with due regard to its purpose, requires application of the whole law of the State where

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the act or omission occurred, including its choice of laws rules. Pp. 10-15.

(c) Both the Federal District Court in Oklahoma and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit have interpreted the pertinent Oklahoma decisions as declaring that an action for wrongful death is based on the statute of the place where the injury occurred that caused the death; that determination of the question of state law is accepted by this Court, and is controlling here; the Missouri statute, therefore, controls this case, and petitioners have failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted. Pp. 15-16.

285 F.2d 521, affirmed.

WARREN, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question to be decided in this case is what law a Federal District Court should apply in an action brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act1 where an act of negligence occurs in one State and results in an injury and death in another State. The basic provision of the Tort Claims Act states that the Government shall be liable for tortious conduct committed by its employees acting within the scope of their employment "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the

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law of the place where the act or omission occurred."2 The parties urge that the alternatives in selecting the law to determine liability under this statute are: (1) the internal law of the place where the negligence occurred, or (2) the whole law (including choice of law rules) of the place where the negligence occurred, or (3) the internal law of the place where the operative effect of the negligence took place.

Although the particular facts of this case are relatively unimportant in deciding the question before us, a brief recitation of them is necessary to set the context for our decision. The petitioners are the personal representatives of passengers killed when an airplane, owned by the respondent American Airlines, crashed in Missouri while en route from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to New York City. Suit was brought by the petitioners [82 S.Ct. 588] against the United States in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, on the theory that the Government, through the Civil Aviation Agency, had "negligently failed to enforce the terms of the Civil Aeronautics Act and the regulations thereunder which prohibited the practices then being used by American Airlines, Inc., in the overhaul depot of Tulsa, Oklahoma."3 The petitioners in each case either had already received a $15,000 settlement from the Airlines, the maximum amount recoverable under the Missouri Wrongful Death Act,4 or had been tendered that amount. They sought additional amounts from the United States under the Oklahoma Wrongful

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Death Act,5 which contains no limitation on the amount a single person may recover from a tortfeasor. The Government filed a third-party complaint against American Airlines, seeking reimbursement for any amount that the petitioners might recover against the United States.

After a pretrial hearing, the District Court ruled that the complaints failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted under the Oklahoma Act, since that statute could not be applied extraterritorially "where an act or omission occurring in Oklahoma results in injury and death in the State of Missouri."6 Alternatively, the court noted that, if Oklahoma law was applicable under the Federal Tort Claims Act, "then the general law of Oklahoma, including its conflicts of law rule, is applicable thereunder," thus precluding further recovery, since the Oklahoma conflicts rule would refer the court to the law of Missouri, the place where the negligence had its operative effect.7 In dismissing the petitioners' complaints against the United States, the court found it unnecessary to pass upon the third-party complaint asserted by the Government against American. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the judgment by a divided vote,8 the majority agreeing with the lower court that the complaints failed to state a cause of action upon which relief could be based under either the Oklahoma or the Missouri Wrongful Death Act. In dissent, the chief judge, believing that Congress intended the internal law of the place where the act or omission occurred to control the rights and liabilities of the parties, stated that he thought it was error to apply the Oklahoma

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conflict of laws rule, and would have remanded the case for a determination of liability under the Oklahoma Act.

That the question confronting us is an important one and of a recurring nature is made apparent by the conflicting views expressed in its solution by the lower federal courts. In the five circuits in which it has arisen, resolution of the question has been reached by adoption of one or another of the alternatives urged upon us by the parties to this suit. The petitioners' contention, that the reference in Section 1346(b) to the "place where the act or omission occurred" directs application of only the internal law of that State -- here, Oklahoma -- is supported by the Seventh Circuit's decision in Voytas v. United States, 256 F.2d 786, and by the District of Columbia Circuit in [82 S.Ct. 589] Eastern Air Lines v. Union Trust Co., 95 U.S.App.D.C. 189, 221 F.2d 62, as well as by the dissenting judge of the Tenth Circuit in the instant case. The Government's interpretation of the Act, that, in order also to give effect to Section 2674,9 providing that the United States shall be liable in the same manner as a private individual, a court must refer to the whole law of the State where the act or omission occurred, was adhered to by the Second Circuit in Landon v. United States, 197 F.2d 128, as well as by the Tenth Circuit in the case at bar. American Airlines, although willing to abide by the interpretation advanced by the Government, suggests, as an alternative, that the internal law of the place where the negligence had its operative effect -- here, Missouri -- should control. This construction of the Act is supported by the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. Marshall, 230 F.2d 183, and by the dissenting opinion in the Union Trust case, supra. It was to resolve the three-fold conflict and to enunciate a rule that can be applied uniformly in Tort Claims Act cases that we granted certiorari. 366 U.S. 916.

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I

The principal provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act, originally enacted as Title IV of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946,10 is Section 1346(b), reading in pertinent part:

. . . the district courts . . . shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages . . . for injury or loss of property, or 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, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.

Section 2674, also relevant to our decision, provides:

The United States shall be liable, respecting . . . tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages.

The Tort Claims Act was designed primarily to remove the sovereign immunity of the United States from suits in tort and, with certain specific exceptions, to render the Government liable in tort as a private individual would be under like circumstances.11 It is evident that the Act was not patterned to operate with complete independence

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from the principles of law developed in the common law and refined by statute and judicial decision in the various States. Rather, it was designed to build upon the legal relationships formulated and characterized by the States, and, to that extent, the statutory scheme is exemplary of the generally interstitial character of federal law. If Congress had meant to alter or supplant the legal relationships developed by the...

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