502 U.S. 301 (1992), 90-838, Molzof v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 90-838
Citation:502 U.S. 301, 112 S.Ct. 711, 116 L.Ed.2d 731, 60 U.S.L.W. 4081
Party Name:Molzof v. United States
Case Date:January 14, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 301

502 U.S. 301 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 711, 116 L.Ed.2d 731, 60 U.S.L.W. 4081



United States

No. 90-838

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 14, 1992

        Argued Nov. 4, 1991




        The District Court awarded the guardian ad litem of petitioner Molzof's since-deceased husband damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA or Act) for supplemental medical care for injuries suffered by Mr. Molzof as a result of the negligence of federal employees, but refused to award damages for future medical expenses and for loss of enjoyment of life. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that damages of the latter two types were barred by the FTCA's prohibition on "punitive damages," 28 U.S.C. § 2674.


        1. Section 2674 -- under which

[t]he United States shall be liable [on] tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable . . . for punitive damages

        (emphasis added) -- bars the recovery only of what are legally considered "punitive damages" under traditional common law principles; i.e., those whose recoverability depends upon proof that the defendant has engaged in intentional or egregious misconduct, and whose purpose is to punish. Pp. 304-312.

        (a) This reading is consistent with the above-quoted language of § 2674, which makes clear that the extent of FTCA liability is generally determined by reference to state law, under which "punitive damages" is a legal term of art that has a widely accepted common law meaning, of which Congress was presumably aware when it adopted the Act. In contrast, the Government's view that "punitive damages" must be defined as those "that are in excess of, or bear no relation to, compensation" is contrary to the statutory language, which suggests that, to the extent that a plaintiff may be entitled to damages that are not legally considered "punitive damages," but which are for some reason above and beyond ordinary notions of compensation, the United States is liable "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual." Pp. 304-308.

        (b) The reading adopted here is also consistent with the Act's structure, and provides courts with a workable standard for determining when a plaintiff is improperly seeking "punitive damages." The Government's argument that a congressional intent to define punitive damages

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by contrasting them with "actual or compensatory damages" is demonstrated by § 2674's second clause -- which limits governmental liability in States permitting only punitive damages in wrongful death actions to "actual or compensatory damages, measured by the pecuniary injuries resulting from . . . death" -- is unpersuasive, since it is undermined both by the well -established common law meaning of "punitive damages" and by the Government's concession that the "pecuniary injuries" standard does not apply in determining compensatory damages in non-wrongful-death tort suits. Moreover, the Government's interpretation of "punitive damages" would be difficult and impractical to apply, creating enormous problems in determining the actual loss suffered in particular kinds of cases. Furthermore, the fact that this Court has not relied on the common law in interpreting some of § 2680's exceptions to FTCA liability is not persuasive evidence that it should do the same here, since many of those exceptions -- e.g., § 2680(a)'s exception for claims based on the performance of a "discretionary function" -- simply have no common law antecedent, while others serve a qualitatively different purpose than § 2674's bar on "punitive damages," having been designed to protect from disruption certain important governmental functions -- e.g., the handling of mail under § 2680(b). Pp. 308-312.

        (c) The Court of Appeals erred in deciding that the FTCA barred Mrs. Molzof from recovering damages for her husband's future medical expenses and his loss of enjoyment of life. It is undisputed that those claims are based solely on a simple negligence theory. Thus, the damages sought are not "punitive damages" under the FTCA, because they do not fall within the common law meaning of that term. P. 312.

        2. However, the case must be remanded for the lower courts to resolve in the first instance whether the damages sought are recoverable as compensatory damages under the law of Wisconsin, the State in which Mr. Molzof's injuries occurred. P. 312.

        911 F.2d 18 (CA7 1990), reversed and remanded.

        THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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        THOMAS, J., lead opinion

        JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

        This case requires us to determine the scope of the statutory prohibition on awards of "punitive damages" in cases brought against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680.


        Petitioner Shirley Molzof is the personal representative of the estate of Robert Molzof, her late husband. On October 31, 1986, Mr. Molzof, a veteran, underwent lung surgery at a Veterans' Administration hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. After surgery, he was placed on a ventilator. For some undisclosed reason, the ventilator tube that was providing oxygen to him became disconnected. The ventilator's alarm system also was disconnected. As a result of this combination of events, Mr. Molzof was deprived of oxygen for approximately eight minutes before his predicament was discovered. Because of this unfortunate series of events, triggered by the hospital employees' conceded negligence, Mr. Molzof suffered irreversible brain damage, leaving him permanently comatose.

       Mr. Molzof's guardian ad litem filed suit in District Court under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA or Act), seeking damages for supplemental medical care, future medical expenses, and loss of enjoyment of life. Respondent (the Government) admitted liability, and the [112 S.Ct. 714] case proceeded to a bench trial on the issue of damages. The District Court determined that the free medical care being provided to Mr. Molzof by the veterans' hospital was reasonable and adequate, that Mrs. Molzof was satisfied with those services and had no intention of transferring Mr. Molzof to a private hospital, and that it was in Mr. Molzof's best interests to remain at the veterans' hospital, because neighboring hospitals could not provide a comparable level of...

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