513 U.S. 115 (1994), 93-1128, Brown v. Gardner

Docket Nº:No. 93-1128
Citation:513 U.S. 115, 115 S.Ct. 552, 130 L.Ed.2d 462, 63 U.S.L.W. 4035
Party Name:BROWN, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS v. GARDNER
Case Date:December 12, 1994
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 115

513 U.S. 115 (1994)

115 S.Ct. 552, 130 L.Ed.2d 462, 63 U.S.L.W. 4035

BROWN, SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

v.

GARDNER

No. 93-1128

United States Supreme Court

December 12, 1994

Argued October 31, 1994

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FEDERAL CIRCUIT

Syllabus

After respondent veteran had back surgery in a Department of Veterans Affairs facility for a condition unrelated to his military service, he developed pain and weakness in his left leg, which he alleged was the result of the surgery. He claimed disability benefits under 38 U.S.C. § 1151, which requires the VA to compensate for "an injury, or an aggravation of an injury," that occurs "as the result of" VA treatment. The VA and the Board of Veterans' Appeals denied the claim on the ground that § 1151, as interpreted by 38 CFR § 3.358(c)(3), only covers an injury if it resulted from negligent treatment by the VA or an accident occurring during treatment. The Court of Veterans Appeals reversed, holding that § 1151 neither imposes nor authorizes adoption of § 3.358(c)(3)'s fault-or-accident requirement. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed.

Held:

Section 3.358(c)(3) is not consistent with the plain language of § 1151, which contains not a word about fault-or-accident. The statutory text and reasonable inferences from it give a clear answer against the Government's arguments that a fault requirement is implicit in the terms "injury" and "as a result of." This clear textually grounded conclusion is also fatal to the Government's remaining principal arguments: that Congress ratified the VA's practice of requiring a showing of fault when it reenacted the predecessor of § 1151 in 1934, or, alternatively, that the post-1934 legislative silence serves as an implicit endorsement of the fault-based policy; and that the policy deserves judicial deference due to its undisturbed endurance. Pp. 117-122.

5 F.3d 1456, affirmed.

Edward C. DuMont argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Days, Deputy Solicitor General Bender, and Tresa M. Schlecht.

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Joseph M. Hannon, Jr., argued the cause for respondent. With him on the briefs was William S. Mailander.[*]

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we decide whether a regulation of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 38 CFR § 3.358(c)(3) (1993), requiring a claimant for certain veterans' benefits to prove that disability resulted from negligent treatment by the VA or an accident occurring during treatment, is consistent with the controlling statute, 38 U.S.C. § 1151 (1988 ed., Supp. V). We hold that it is not.

I

Fred P. Gardner, a veteran of the Korean conflict, received surgical treatment in a VA facility for a herniated disc unrelated to his prior military service. Gardner then had pain and weakness in his left calf, ankle, and foot, which he alleged was the result of the surgery. He claimed disability benefits under § 1151,[1] which provides that the VA will compensate for "an injury, or an aggravation of an injury," that occurs "as the result of hospitalization, medical or surgical treatment, or the pursuit of a course of vocational rehabilitation" provided under any of the laws administered by the VA, so long as the injury was "not the result of such veteran's own willful misconduct. . . . " The VA and the Board

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of Veterans' Appeals denied Gardner's claim for benefits, on the ground that § 1151, as interpreted by 38 CFR § 3.358(c)(3)(1993), only covers an injury if it "proximately resulted [from] carelessness, negligence, lack of proper skill, error in judgment, or similar instances of indicated fault" on the part of the VA, or from the occurrence during treatment or rehabilitation of an "accident," defined as an "unforeseen, untoward" event. The Court of Veterans Appeals reversed, holding that § 1151 neither imposes nor authorizes adoption of the fault-or-accident requirement set out in § 3.358(c)(3), Gardner v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 584 (1991), and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed, 5 F.3d 1456 (1993). We granted certiorari, 511 U.S. 1017, and now affirm.

II

Despite the absence from the statutory language of so much as a word about fault[2] on the part of the VA, the Government proposes two interpretations in attempting to reveal a fault requirement implicit in the text of § 1151, the first being that fault inheres in the concept of compensable "injury." We think that no such inference can be drawn in this instance, however. Even though "injury" can of course carry a fault connotation, see Webster's New International Dictionary 1280 (2d ed. 1957) (an "actionable wrong"), it just as certainly need not do so, see ibid. ("[d]amage or hurt done to or suffered by a person or thing"). The most, then, that the Government could claim on the basis of this term is the existence of an ambiguity to be resolved in favor of a fault requirement (assuming that such a resolution would be possible

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after applying the rule that interpretive doubt is to be resolved in the veteran's favor, see King v. St. Vincent's Hospital, 502 U.S. 215, 220-221, n. 9 (1991)). But the Government cannot plausibly make even this claim here. Ambiguity is a creature not of definitional possibilities but of statutory context, see id., at 221 ("[T]he meaning of statutory language, plain or not, depends on context"), and this context negates a fault reading. Section 1151 provides compensability not only for an "injury," but for an "aggravation of an injury" as well. "Injury" as used in this latter phrase refers to a condition prior to the treatment in question, and hence cannot carry with it any suggestion of fault attributable to the VA in causing it. Since there is a presumption that a given term is used to mean the same thing throughout a statute, Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers, Inc. v. United States, 286 U.S. 427, 433 (1932), a presumption surely at its most vigorous when a term is repeated within a given sentence, it is virtually impossible to read "injury" as laden with fault in the sentence quoted.

Textual cross-reference confirms this conclusion. "Injury" is employed elsewhere in the veterans' benefits statutes as an instance of the neutral term "disability," appearing within a series whose other terms exemplify debility free from any fault connotation. See 38 U.S.C. § 1701(1) (1988 ed., Supp. V) ("The term 'disability' means a disease, injury, or other physical or mental defect"). The serial treatment thus indicates that the same fault-free sense should be attributed to the term "injury" itself. Jarecki v. G. D. Searle & Co., 367 U.S. 303, 307 (1961)...

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