374 U.S. 150 (1963), 464, United States v. Muniz

Docket Nº:No. 464
Citation:374 U.S. 150, 83 S.Ct. 1850, 10 L.Ed.2d 805
Party Name:United States v. Muniz
Case Date:June 17, 1963
Court:United States Supreme Court

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374 U.S. 150 (1963)

83 S.Ct. 1850, 10 L.Ed.2d 805

United States



No. 464

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1963

Argued April 22-23, 1963




A federal prisoner can sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act to recover damages from the United States for personal injuries sustained during confinement in a federal prison and resulting from the negligence of a government employee. Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, distinguished. Pp. 150-166.

305 F.2d 253, 285, affirmed.

WARREN, J., lead opinion

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

The question in this case is whether a person can sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act1 to recover damages from the United States Government for personal injuries sustained during confinement in a federal prison, by reason of the negligence of a government employee. For reasons to be developed below, we hold that such suits are within the purview of the Act.

This litigation, brought here by the Government as a single case, arises from two separate suits for personal injuries brought by respondents Henry Winston and Carlos Muniz in the United States District Court for the

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Southern District of New York. Both sought damages for personal injuries suffered while they were confined in federal prisons. The district judge granted the Government's motions to dismiss in both [83 S.Ct. 1852] cases on the ground that such suits were not permitted by the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed, four judges dissenting. 305 F.2d 264, 287.2 Because the decision below involves an important question in the construction of the Federal Tort Claims Act, and because two Courts of Appeals had previously reached a contrary result,3 we granted certiorari. 371 U.S. 919.

Winston alleged that, in April, 1959, while he was confined in the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, he began suffering dizziness, loss of balance, and difficulty with his vision. Upon Winston's initial complaint, the prison medical officer's diagnosis was borderline hypertension; the treatment, a reduction in weight. Winston's symptoms nevertheless recurred with increasing severity over the next nine months; he was unable to keep his balance and fell frequently. He also began to suffer periodic loss of vision. Despite repeated complaints to the prison officers, Winston was given no further treatment, except some dramamine for his dizziness. In January, 1960, Winston's attorney became alarmed by his condition, and had him examined by a consulting physician. In February, 1960, an operation successfully removed the benign brain tumor which had caused Winston's difficulties, but his sight could not be saved.

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Winston alleged that the negligence of the prison employees was responsible for the delay in diagnosis and removal of the tumor and caused his blindness.

Respondent Muniz alleged that he was, in August, 1959, a prisoner in a federal correctional institution in Danbury, Connecticut. On the afternoon of August 24, Muniz was outside one of the institution's dormitories when he was struck by an inmate, and then pursued by 12 inmates into another dormitory. A prison guard, apparently choosing to confine the altercation instead of interceding, locked the dormitory. The 12 inmates who had chased Muniz into the dormitory set upon him, beating him with chairs and sticks until he was unconscious. Muniz sustained a fractured skull and ultimately lost the vision of his right eye. He alleged that the prison officials were negligent in failing to provide enough guards to prevent the assaults leading to his injuries, and in letting prisoners, some of whom were mentally abnormal, intermingle without adequate supervision.

Whether respondents are entitled to maintain these suits requires us to determine what Congress intended when it passed the Federal Tort Claims Act in 1946. This question would not appear at first glance to pose serious difficulty. Congress used neither intricate nor restrictive language in waiving the Government's sovereign immunity. It gave the District Courts jurisdiction

of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages, . . . for . . . personal injury . . . 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.

28 U.S.C. § 1346(b).

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The Act also provides that the

United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort [83 S.Ct. 1853] claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.

28 U.S.C. § 2674. Congress qualified this general waiver of immunity in 28 U.S.C. § 2680 by excepting from the Act claims arising from certain government activity, such as transmission of postal matter, assessment of taxes, imposition of a quarantine, or operation of the Panama Canal. None of the exceptions precludes suit against the Government by federal prisoners for injuries sustained in prison. So far as it appears from the face of the Act, Congress has clearly consented to suits such as those involved in the case at bar. Whether a claim could be made out would depend upon whether a private individual under like circumstances would be liable under state law, but prisoners are at least not prohibited from suing. Since a number of lower courts have nevertheless reached a contrary conclusion,4 largely in reliance upon our decision in Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, we deem it appropriate to make a more detailed investigation into the intent of Congress.

An examination of the legislative history of the Act reinforces our conclusion that Congress intended to permit such suits. For a number of reasons, it appears that Congress was well aware of claims by federal prisoners,

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and that its failure to exclude them from the provisions of the Act in 28 U.S.C. § 2680 was deliberate. First, the Federal Tort Claims Act, as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946,5 was designed not only to avoid injustice to those having meritorious claims hitherto barred by sovereign immunity, but to eliminate the burden on Congress of investigating and passing upon private bills seeking individual relief. See Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15, 24-25; Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, 139-140.6 The task of screening these bills was substantial. See, e.g., 74 Cong.Rec. 6868. Private claim bills introduced in the Sixty-eighth through the Seventy-eighth Congresses averaged 2,000 or more per Congress, roughly 20% of which were enacted. H.R.Rep. No. 1287, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. Among the private claim bills were a number submitted on behalf of federal prisoners, of which, between 1935 and 1946, Congress passed 21.7 The much larger number of private bills that must have been introduced were therefore among those adding to Congress' burdens. In these circumstances, it cannot be assumed that Congress was unaware of their presence.

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A second indication that Congress was conscious of claims by federal prisoners is found in the prior versions of the Act. Efforts to permit tort suits against [83 S.Ct. 1854] the Government began in 1925 with the introduction of H.R. 12178, 68th Cong., 2d Sess.8 Thereafter, at least one bill was introduced in every Congress, with the exception of the Seventy-fifth, until the present Act was passed by the Seventy-ninth Congress in 1946. Though the provisions of these bills underwent change during the intervening 21 years, the similarities are noteworthy. With the amendment of S. 1912 in the Sixty-ninth Congress, First Session, for example, came the first specific exceptions to the general waiver of sovereign immunity. Two of those exceptions, relating to postal matters and taxation, were cast in language virtually identical to that used in the Act ultimately passed 20 years later. And, as exceptions were added over the years, most relieved the Government from liability in the same circumstances as the present Act. Only a few exceptions were at one time proposed and later dropped, without counterpart in the present Act.9 One such exception related to claims by federal

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prisoners. Six of the 31 bills introduced in Congress between 1925 and 1946 either barred prisoners from suing while in federal prison or precluded suit upon any claim for injury to or death of a prisoner.10 That such an exception was absent from the Act itself is significant in view of the consistent course of development of the bills proposed over the years and the [83 S.Ct. 1855] marked reliance by each succeeding Congress upon the language of the earlier bills. We therefore feel that the want of an exception for prisoners' claims reflects a deliberate choice, rather than an inadvertent omission.

Finally, the Report of the House Committee on the Judiciary made explicit reference to the laws of four States, which had relaxed, to differing degrees, the rule

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of sovereign immunity.11 H.R.Rep. No. 1287, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. The report noted that such "legislation does not appear to have had any detrimental or undesirable effect." Id. at 3.12 In one of those four States, New York, it was well settled by 1946 that persons could recover for injuries sustained in prison.13 Congressional

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equanimity in the face of such liability further strengthens the conclusion that Congress intended to permit suits by federal prisoners.

Considering the plain import of the statutory language, the number of prisoners' claims among the individual applications for private bills leading to the passage...

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