507 U.S. 197 (1993), 91-1538, Smith v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 91-1538
Citation:507 U.S. 197, 113 S.Ct. 1178, 122 L.Ed.2d 548, 61 U.S.L.W. 4215
Party Name:Smith v. United States
Case Date:March 08, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 197

507 U.S. 197 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 1178, 122 L.Ed.2d 548, 61 U.S.L.W. 4215

Smith

v.

United States

No. 91-1538

United States Supreme Court

March 8, 1993

        Argued Dec. 7, 1992

        CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

        FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

        Syllabus

        After her husband was killed in Antarctica -- a sovereignless region without civil tort law of its own -- while he was working for a private firm under contract to a federal agency, petitioner filed this wrongful death action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The District Court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that the claim was barred by the FTCA's foreign country exception, which states that the statute's waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to "[a]ny claim arising in a foreign country," 28 U.S.C. § 2680(k). The Court of Appeals affirmed.

        Held: The FTCA does not apply to tortious acts or omissions occurring in Antarctica. The ordinary meaning of "foreign country" includes Antarctica, even though it has no recognized government. If this were not so, § 1346(b) -- which waives sovereign immunity for certain torts committed

under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable . . . in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred

       (emphasis added) -- would have the bizarre result of instructing courts to look to the law of a place that has no law in order to determine the United States' liability. Similarly, if Antarctica were included within the FTCA's coverage, § 1402(b) -- which provides that claims may be brought "only in the judicial district where the plaintiff resides or wherein the act or omission complained of occurred" -- would have the anomalous result of limiting venue to cases in which the claimant happened to reside in the United States, since no federal judicial district encompasses Antarctica. This interpretation of the FTCA accords with the canon of construction that prohibits courts from either extending or narrowing the statute's sovereign immunity waiver beyond what Congress intended, United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117-118, and with the presumption against extraterritorial application of [113 S.Ct. 1180] United States statutes, see, e.g., EEOC v. Arabian American Oil Co., 499 U.S. 244, 248. It is unlikely that Congress, had it expressly considered the question when it passed the FTCA, would have included a desolate and extraordinarily dangerous land such as Antarctica within the statute's scope. Pp. 200-205.

        953 F.2d 1116, affirmed.

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        REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 205.

        REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

        CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

        This case presents the question whether the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 1402(b), 2401(b), 2671-2680 (1988 ed. and Supp. II), applies to tortious acts or omissions occurring in Antarctica, a sovereignless region without civil tort law of its own.[1] We hold that it does not.

        Petitioner Sandra Jean Smith is the widow of John Emmett Smith and the duly appointed representative of his estate.

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At the time of his death, Smith worked as a carpenter at McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica, for a construction company under contract to the National Science Foundation, an agency of the United States. Smith and two companions one day took a recreational hike to Castle Rock, located several miles outside of McMurdo Station. On their return, they departed from the marked route to walk across a snow field in the direction of Scott Base, a New Zealand outpost not far from McMurdo Station. After stopping for a snack, one of the three men took a step and suddenly dropped from sight. Smith followed, and he, too, disappeared. Both men had fallen into a crevasse. Despite search and rescue efforts, Smith died from exposure and internal injuries suffered as a result of the fall.

       Petitioner filed this wrongful death action against the United States under the FTCA in the District Court for the District of Oregon, the district where she resides. Petitioner alleged that the United States was negligent in failing to provide adequate warning of the dangers posed by crevasses in areas beyond the marked paths. It is undisputed that petitioner's claim is based exclusively on acts or omissions occurring in Antarctica. Upon the motion of the United States, the District Court dismissed petitioner's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, 702 F.Supp. 1480 (1989), holding that her claim was barred by 28 U.S.C. § 2680(k), the foreign country exception. Section 2680(k) precludes the exercise of jurisdiction over "[a]ny claim arising [113 S.Ct. 1181] in a foreign country."

        The Court of Appeals affirmed, 953 F.2d 1116 (CA9 1991). It noted that the term "foreign country" admits of multiple interpretations, and thus looked to the language and structure of the FTCA as a whole to determine whether Antarctica is a "foreign country" within the meaning of the statute. Adopting the analysis and conclusion of then-judge Scalia, see Beattie v. United States, 244 U.S.App.D.C. 70, 85-109, 756 F.2d 91, 106-130 (1984) (Scalia, J., dissenting), the Court

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of Appeals ruled that the FTCA does not apply to claims arising in Antarctica. To hold otherwise, the Court of Appeals stated, would render two other provisions of the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1402(b), 1346(b), nonsensical. The Court of Appeals held, in the alternative, that petitioner's suit would be barred even if Antarctica were not a "foreign country" for purposes of the FTCA. Because the FTCA was a limited relinquishment of the common law immunity of the United States, the Court of Appeals concluded that the absence of any clear congressional intent to subject the United States to liability for claims arising in Antarctica precluded petitioner's suit. We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict between two Courts of Appeals,[2] 504 U.S. 984 (1992), and now affirm.

        Petitioner argues that the scope of the foreign country exception turns on whether the United States has recognized the legitimacy of another nation's sovereign claim over the foreign land. Otherwise, she contends, the land is not a "country" for purposes of the FTCA. Petitioner points out that the United States does not recognize the validity of other nations' claims to portions of Antarctica. She asserts, moreover, that this construction of the term "foreign country" is most consistent with the purpose underlying the foreign country exception. According to petitioner, Congress enacted the foreign country exception in order to insulate the United States from tort liability imposed pursuant to foreign law. Because Antarctica has no law of its own, petitioner claims that conventional choice-of-law rules control, and require the application of Oregon law, the law of her domicile. Thus, petitioner concludes, the rationale for the foreign country exception would not be compromised by the exercise of jurisdiction here, since the United States

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would not be subject to liability under the law of a foreign nation.

        Petitioner's argument for governmental liability here faces significant obstacles in addition to the foreign country exception, but we turn first to the language of that proviso. It states that the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to "[a]ny claim arising in a foreign country." 28 U.S.C. § 2680(k). Though the FTCA offers no definition of "country," the common sense meaning of the term undermines petitioner's attempt to equate it with "sovereign state." The first dictionary definition of "country" is simply "[a] region or tract of land." Webster's New International Dictionary 609 (2d ed.1945). To be sure, this is not the only possible interpretation of the term, and it is therefore appropriate to examine other parts of the statute before making a final determination. But the ordinary meaning of the language itself, we think, includes Antarctica, even though it has no recognized government.

        Our construction of the term "foreign country" draws support from the language of § 1346(b), "[t]he principal provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act." Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 6 (1962). That section waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees

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) (emphasis added). We have construed § 1346(b) in determining what law should apply in actions brought under the FTCA. See Richards, supra. But by its terms, the section is more than a choice-of-law provision: it delineates the scope of the United States' waiver of sovereign immunity. If Antarctica were not a "foreign country," and for that reason included within the FTCA's coverage, § 1346(b) would instruct courts to look to the law of a place that has no law in order to determine the

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liability of the United States -- surely a bizarre result.[3] Of course, if it were quite clear from the balance of the statute that governmental liability was intended for torts committed in Antarctica, then the failure of § 1346(b) to specify any governing law might be treated as a statutory gap that the courts could fill by decisional law. But coupled with what seems to us the most natural interpretation of the foreign country exception, this portion of § 1346(b) reinforces the conclusion that Antarctica is excluded from the coverage of the FTCA.

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