481 U.S. 681 (1987), 85-2039, United States v. Johnson

Docket Nº:No. 85-2039
Citation:481 U.S. 681, 107 S.Ct. 2063, 95 L.Ed.2d 648, 55 U.S.L.W. 4647
Party Name:United States v. Johnson
Case Date:May 18, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 681

481 U.S. 681 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 2063, 95 L.Ed.2d 648, 55 U.S.L.W. 4647

United States

v.

Johnson

No. 85-2039

United States Supreme Court

May 18, 1987

Argued February 24, 1987

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Under Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, the Government has no Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) liability for injuries to members of the military service arising out of or in the course of activity incident to service. Respondent's husband, a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard, was killed when his helicopter crashed during a rescue mission. Shortly before the crash, air traffic controllers from the Federal Aviation Administration, a civilian agency of the Federal Government, had assumed positive radar control over the helicopter. After receiving veterans' benefits for her husband's death, respondent filed an FTCA action seeking damages from the Government on the ground that the controllers' negligence had caused the crash. The Federal District Court dismissed the complaint relying exclusively on Feres. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, distinguishing Feres from cases [107 S.Ct. 2064] such as the present in which negligence is alleged on the part of a Government employee who is not a member of the military. Finding the effect of a suit on military discipline to be the Feres doctrine's primary justification, the court ruled that Feres did not bar respondent's suit, since there was no indication that the conduct or decisions of military personnel would be subjected to scrutiny if the case proceeded to trial.

Held: The Feres doctrine bars an FTCA action on behalf of a service member killed during an activity incident to service, even if the alleged negligence is by civilian employees of the Federal Government. Pp. 686-692.

(a) This Court and the lower federal courts have consistently applied the Feres doctrine since its inception, and have never suggested that the military status of the alleged tortfeasor is crucial. Nor has Congress seen fit to change the Feres standard in the more than 35 years since it was articulated. Pp. 686-688.

(b) The three broad rationales underlying Feres refute the critical significance ascribed to the status of the alleged tortfeasor by the Court of Appeals. First, the distinctively federal character of the relationship between the Government and Armed Forces personnel necessitates a federal remedy that provides simple, certain, and uniform compensation, unaffected by the fortuity of the situs of the alleged negligence. Second, the statutory veterans' disability and death benefits system

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provides the sole remedy for service-connected injuries. Third, even if military negligence is not specifically alleged in a service member's FTCA suit, military discipline may be impermissibly affected by the suit, since the judgments and decisions underlying the military mission are necessarily implicated, and the duty and loyalty that service members owe to their services and the country may be undermined. Pp. 688-691.

(c) Respondent's husband's death resulted from the rescue mission, a primary duty of the Coast Guard, and the mission was an activity incident to his service. Respondent received statutory veterans' benefits on behalf of her husband's death. Because respondent's husband was acting pursuant to standard Coast Guard Operating Procedures, the potential that this suit could implicate military discipline is substantial. Thus, this case falls within the heart of the Feres doctrine. Pp. 691-692.

779 F.2d 1492, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 692.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court

This case presents the question whether the doctrine established in Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950), bars an action under the Federal Tort Claims Act on behalf of a service member killed during the course of an activity incident to service, where the complaint alleges negligence on the part of civilian employees of the Federal Government.

I

Lieutenant Commander Horton Winfield Johnson was a helicopter pilot for the United States Coast Guard, stationed

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in Hawaii. In the early morning of January 7, 1982, Johnson's Coast Guard station received a distress call from a boat lost in the area. Johnson and a crew of several other Coast Guard members were dispatched to [107 S.Ct. 2065] search for the vessel. Inclement weather decreased the visibility, and so Johnson requested radar assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a civilian agency of the Federal Government. The FAA controllers assumed positive radar control over the helicopter. Shortly thereafter, the helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain on the island of Molokai. All the crew members, including Johnson, were killed in the crash.

Respondent, Johnson's wife, applied for and received compensation for her husband's death pursuant to the Veterans' Benefits Act, 72 Stat. 1118, as amended, 38 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. III).1 In addition, she filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346, 2671-2680. Her complaint sought damages from the United States on the ground that the FAA flight controllers negligently caused her husband's death. The Government filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that, because Johnson was killed during the course of his military duties, respondent could not recover damages from the United States. The District Court agreed and dismissed the complaint, relying exclusively on this Court's decision in Feres.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed. 749 F.2d 1530 (1986). It noted the language of Feres that precludes suits by service members against the Government

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for injuries that "arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service." 340 U.S. at 146. The court found, however, that the evolution of the doctrine since the Feres decision warranted a qualification of the original holding according to the status of the alleged tortfeasor. The court identified what it termed "the typical Feres factual paradigm" that exists when a service member alleges negligence on the part of another member of the military. 749 F.2d at 1537.

[W]hen the Feres factual paradigm is present, the issue is whether the injury arose out of or during the course of an activity incident to service.

Ibid. But when negligence is alleged on the part of a Federal Government employee who is not a member of the military, the court found that the propriety of a suit should be determined by examining the rationales that underlie the Feres doctrine. Although it noted that this Court has articulated numerous rationales for the doctrine,2 it found the effect of a suit on military discipline to be the doctrine's primary justification.

Applying its new analysis to the facts of this case, the court found

absolutely no hint . . . that the conduct of any alleged tortfeasor even remotely connected to the military will be scrutinized if this case proceeds to trial.

749 F.2d at 1539.

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Accordingly, it found that Feres did not bar respondent's suit. The court acknowledged [107 S.Ct. 2066] that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, "in a case strikingly similar to this one, has reached the opposite conclusion." 749 F.2d at 1539 (citing Uptegrove v. United States, 600 F.2d 1248 (1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1044 (1980)).3 It concluded, however, that "Uptegrove was wrongly decided," 749 F.2d at 1539, and declined to reach the same result.

The Court of Appeals granted the Government's suggestion for rehearing en banc. The en banc court found that this Court's recent decision in United States v. Shearer, 473 U.S. 52 (1985), "reinforc[ed] the analysis set forth in the panel opinion," 779 F.2d 1492, 1493 (1986) (per curiam), particularly the

[s]pecial emphasis . . . upon military discipline and whether or not the claim being considered would require civilian courts to second-guess military decisions,

id. at 1493-1494. It concluded that the panel properly had evaluated the claim under Feres, and therefore reinstated the panel opinion. Judge Johnson, joined by three other judges, strongly dissented. The dissent rejected the "Feres factual paradigm" as identified by the court, finding that, because

Johnson's injury was undoubtedly sustained incident to service, . . . under current law, our decision ought to be a relatively straightforward affirmance.

Id. at 1494.

We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 811 (1986), to review the Court of Appeals' reformulation of the Feres doctrine and to resolve the conflict among the Circuits on the issue.4 We now reverse.

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II

In Feres, this Court held that service members cannot bring tort suits against the Government for injuries that "arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service." 340 U.S. at 146. This Court has never deviated from this characterization of the Feres bar.5 Nor has Congress changed this standard in the close to 40 years since it was articulated, even though, as the Court noted in Feres, Congress "possesses a ready remedy" to alter a misinterpretation of its intent. Id. at 138.6 Although all of the cases decided by this Court under Feres have involved allegations of negligence on the part of members of the military, this Court has never suggested that the military status of the alleged tortfeasor is crucial to the application of...

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