487 U.S. 392 (1988), 87-626, Sheridan v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 87-626
Citation:487 U.S. 392, 108 S.Ct. 2449, 101 L.Ed.2d 352, 56 U.S.L.W. 4761
Party Name:Sheridan v. United States
Case Date:June 24, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 392

487 U.S. 392 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 2449, 101 L.Ed.2d 352, 56 U.S.L.W. 4761

Sheridan

v.

United States

No. 87-626

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 1988

Argued April 26, 1988

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

An obviously intoxicated off-duty serviceman (Carr) fired several rifle shots into petitioners' automobile on a public street near the Bethesda Naval Hospital where Carr worked, causing physical injury to one of the petitioners and damage to the car. Petitioners filed suit against the Government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in Federal District Court, alleging that their injuries were caused by the Government's negligence in allowing Carr to leave the hospital with a loaded rifle in his possession. The facts, as alleged in the complaint and as supplemented by discovery, were that, after finishing his work shift, Carr consumed a large amount of alcoholic beverages; that naval corpsmen found him in a drunken stupor in a hospital building and attempted to take him to the emergency room; that the corpsmen fled when they saw a rifle in his possession; that the corpsmen neither took further action to subdue Carr nor alerted the appropriate authorities that he was intoxicated and brandishing a weapon; and that he fired the shots into petitioners' car later that evening. The District Court dismissed the action on the ground that the claim was barred by the FTCA's intentional tort exception, 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h), which provides that the Act's provisions subjecting the Government to liability for the negligent or wrongful act or omission of a Government employee while acting within the scope of his employment shall not apply to any claim "arising out of " an assault or battery. The court rejected petitioners' argument that § 2680(h) was not applicable because they were relying, not on the fact that Carr was a Government employee when he assaulted them, but rather on the negligence of other Government employees who failed to prevent his use of the rifle. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Petitioners' claim is not barred by § 2680(h). Although the words "any claims arising out of " an assault or battery are broad enough to bar all claims based entirely on an assault or battery, in at least some situations, the fact that injury was directly caused by an assault or battery will not preclude liability against the Government for negligently allowing the assault to occur. Cf. United States v. Muniz, 374 U.S. 150. Even assuming that, when an intentional tort is a sine qua non of recovery, the action "arises out of" that tort, nevertheless the § 2680(h) exception does not bar recovery in this case. The intentional tort exception is inapplicable

Page 393

to torts that fall outside the scope of the FTCA's general waiver of the Government's immunity from liability. Since the FTCA covers actions for personal injuries caused by the negligence or wrongful act or omission of any Government employee "while acting within the scope of his office or employment," if nothing more was involved here than Carr's conduct at the time he shot at petitioners, there would be no basis for imposing liability on the Government. As alleged in this case, however, the negligence of other Government employees who allowed a foreseeable assault and battery to occur may furnish a basis for Government liability that is entirely independent of Carr's employment status. Assuming that petitioners' version of the facts would support recovery under Maryland law on a negligence theory if the naval hospital had been owned and operated by a private person, the mere fact that Carr happened to be an off-duty federal employee would not provide a basis for protecting the Government from liability that would attach if Carr had been a non-Government employed patient or visitor in the hospital. The fact that Carr's behavior is characterized as an intentional assault, rather than a negligent act, is also irrelevant. Pp. 398-403.

823 F.2d 820, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 403. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 404. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 408.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

On February 6, 1982, an obviously intoxicated off-duty serviceman named Carr fired several rifle shots into an automobile being driven by petitioners on a public street near the

Page 394

Bethesda Naval Hospital. Petitioners brought suit against the United States, alleging that their injuries were caused by the Government's negligence in allowing Carr to leave the hospital with a loaded rifle in his possession. The District Court dismissed the action -- and the Court of Appeals affirmed -- on the ground that the claim is barred by the intentional tort exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The question we granted certiorari to decide is whether petitioners' claim is one "arising out of" an assault or battery within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h).1

I

When it granted the Government's motion to dismiss, the District Court accepted petitioners' version of the facts as alleged

Page 395

in their complaint and as supplemented by discovery. That version may be briefly stated. After finishing his shift as a naval medical aide at the hospital, Carr consumed a large quantity of wine, rum, and other alcoholic beverages. He then packed some of his belongings, including a rifle and ammunition, into a uniform bag and left his quarters. Some time later, three naval corpsmen found him lying face down in a drunken stupor on the concrete floor of a hospital building. They attempted to take him to the emergency room, but he broke away, grabbing the bag and revealing the barrel of the rifle. At the sight of the rifle barrel, the corpsmen fled. They neither took further action to subdue Carr nor alerted the appropriate authorities that he was heavily intoxicated and brandishing a weapon. Later that evening, Carr fired the shots that caused physical injury to one of the petitioners and property damage to their car.

The District Court began its legal analysis by noting the general rule that the Government is not liable for the intentional torts of its employees. The petitioners argued that the general rule was inapplicable because they were relying, not on the fact that Carr was a Government employee when he assaulted them, but rather on the negligence of other Government employees who failed to prevent his use of the rifle. The District Court assumed that the alleged negligence would have made the defendant liable under the law of Maryland, and also assumed that the Government would have been liable if Carr had not been a Government employee. Nevertheless, although stating that it was "sympathetic" to petitioners' claim, App. to Pet. for Cert. 26a, it concluded that Fourth Circuit precedents required dismissal because Carr "happens to be a government employee, rather than a private citizen," id. at 23a.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. 823 F.2d 820 (CA4 1987). Like the District Court, it concluded that the Circuit's prior decisions in Hughes v. United States, 662 F.2d 219 (CA4 1981) (per curiam), and Thigpen v. United States, 800 F.2d

Page 396

393 (CA4 1986),2 foreclosed the following argument advanced by petitioners:

[108 S.Ct. 2453]

The Sheridans also argue that Carr's status as an enlisted naval man and, therefore, a government employee, should [be] irrelevant to the issue of the government's immunity vel non from liability for negligently failing to prevent the injury. They correctly assert that the shooting at the Sheridans' vehicle was not connected with Carr's job responsibility or duties as a government employee. The Sheridans further assert that, if Carr had not been a government employee, a claim would undoubtedly lie against the government and § 2680(h) would be inapplicable. See Rogers v. United States, 397 F.2d 12 (4th Cir.1968) (holding § 2680(h) inapplicable where probationer alleged that negligence by United States marshal allowed nongovernment employee to assault and torture probationer). They contend it is anomalous to deny their claim simply because the corpsmen were negligent in the handling of a government employee

Page 397

rather than a private citizen.

823 F.2d at 822 (footnotes omitted).

In dissent, Chief Judge Winter argued that cases involving alleged negligence in hiring or supervising Government employees are not applicable to a situation in which the basis for the Government's alleged liability has nothing to do with the assailant's employment status. He wrote:

As the majority opinion concedes, . . . Hughes and Thigpen, as well as the other cases relied upon by the majority . . are all cases where the purported government negligence was premised solely on claims of negligent hiring and/or supervision. The same was true in United States v. Shearer, [473 U.S. 52 (1985)]. Such claims are essentially grounded in the doctrine of respondeat superior. In these cases, the government's liability arises, if at all, only because of the employment relationship. If the assailant were not a federal employee, there would be no independent basis for a suit against the government. It is in this situation that an allegation of government negligence can legitimately be seen as an effort to "circumvent" the § 2680(h) bar; it is just this situation -- where government liability is possible only because of the fortuity that the assailant happens to receive federal paychecks -- that § 2680(h) was designed to preclude. See Shearer, [473 U.S...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP