Boyle v. United Technologies Corporation, No. 86-492

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSCALIA
Citation101 L.Ed.2d 442,487 U.S. 500,108 S.Ct. 2510
PartiesDelbert BOYLE, Personal Representative of the Heirs and Estate of David A. Boyle, Deceased, Petitioner, v. UNITED TECHNOLOGIES CORPORATION
Docket NumberNo. 86-492
Decision Date13 October 1987

487 U.S. 500
108 S.Ct. 2510
101 L.Ed.2d 442
Delbert BOYLE, Personal Representative of the Heirs and Estate of David A. Boyle, Deceased, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED TECHNOLOGIES CORPORATION.

No. 86-492.
Argued Oct. 13, 1987.
Reargued April 27, 1988.
Decided June 27, 1988.
Syllabus

David A. Boyle, a United States Marine helicopter copilot, drowned when his helicopter crashed off the Virginia coast. Petitioner, the personal representative of the heirs and estate of Boyle, brought this diversity action in Federal District Court against the Sikorsky Division of respondent corporation (Sikorsky), alleging, inter alia, under Virginia tort law, that Sikorsky had defectively designed the helicopter's copilot emergency escape-hatch system. The jury returned a general verdict for petitioner, and the court denied Sikorsky's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with directions that judgment be entered for Sikorsky. It found that, as a matter of federal law, Sikorsky could not be held liable for the allegedly defective design because Sikorsky satisfied the requirements of the "military contractor defense."

Held:

1. There is no merit to petitioner's contention that, in the absence of federal legislation specifically immunizing Government contractors, federal law cannot shield contractors from liability for design defects in military equipment. In a few areas involving "uniquely federal interests," state law is pre-empted and replaced, where necessary, by federal law of a content prescribed (absent explicit statutory directive) by the courts. The procurement of equipment by the United States is an area of uniquely federal interest. A dispute such as the present one, even though between private parties, implicates the interests of the United States in this area. Once it is determined that an area of uniquely federal interest is implicated, state law will be displaced only where a "significant conflict" exists between an identifiable federal policy or interest and the operation of state law, or the application of state law would frustrate specific objectives of federal legislation. Here, the state-imposed duty of care that is the asserted basis of the contractor's liability is precisely contrary to the duty imposed by the Government contract. But even in this situation, it would be unreasonable to say that there is always a "significant conflict" between state law and a federal policy or interest. In search of a limiting principle to identify when a significant

Page 501

conflict is present, the Court of Appeals relied on the rationale of Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, 71 S.Ct. 153, 95 L.Ed. 152. This produces results that are in some respects too broad and in some respects too narrow. However, the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act does demonstrate the potential for, and suggest the outlines of, "significant conflict" between federal interest and state law in this area. State law is displaced where judgment against the contractor would threaten a discretionary function of the Government. In sum, state law which imposes liability for design defects in military equipment is displaced where (a) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (b) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (c) the supplier warned the United States about dangers in the use of the equipment known to the supplier but not to the United States. Pp. 504-513.

2. Also without merit is petitioner's contention that since the Government contractor defense formulated by the Court of Appeals differed from the instructions given by the District Court to the jury, the Seventh Amendment guarantee of jury trial requires a remand for trial on the new theory. If the evidence presented in the first trial would not suffice, as a matter of law, to support a jury verdict under the properly formulated defense, judgment could properly be entered for respondent at once, without a new trial. It is unclear from the Court of Appeals' opinion, however, whether it was in fact deciding that no reasonable jury could, under the properly formulated defense, have found the petitioner on the facts presented, or rather was assessing on its own whether the defense had been established. The latter would be error, since whether the facts established the conditions for the defense is a question for the jury. The case is remanded for clarification of this point. Pp. 513-514.

792 F.2d 413 (CA4 1986), vacated and remanded.

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

Louis Stanton Franecke, San Francisco, Cal., for petitioner.

Philip A. Lacovara, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Donald B. Ayer, Sacramento, Cal., for U.S., as amicus curiae in support of the respondent by special leave of Court.

Page 502

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide when a contractor providing military equipment to the Federal Government can be held liable under state tort law for injury caused by a design defect.

I

On April 27, 1983, David A. Boyle, a United States Marine helicopter copilot, was killed when the CH-53D helicopter in which he was flying crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach, Virginia, during a training exercise. Although Boyle survived the impact of the crash, he was unable to escape from the helicopter and drowned. Boyle's father, petitioner here, brought this diversity action in Federal District Court against the Sikorsky Division of United Technologies Corporation (Sikorsky), which built the helicopter for the United States.

Page 503

At trial, petitioner presented two theories of liability under Virginia tort law that were submitted to the jury. First, petitioner alleged that Sikorsky had defectively repaired a device called the servo in the helicopter's automatic flight control system, which allegedly malfunctioned and caused the crash. Second, petitioner alleged that Sikorsky had defectively designed the copilot's emergency escape system: the escape hatch opened out instead of in (and was therefore ineffective in a submerged craft because of water pressure), and access to the escape hatch handle was obstructed by other equipment. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of petitioner and awarded him $725,000. The District Court denied Sikorsky's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with directions that judgment be entered for Sikorsky. 792 F.2d 413 (CA4 1986). It found, as a matter of Virginia law, that Boyle had failed to meet his burden of demonstrating that the repair work performed by Sikorsky, as opposed to work that had been done by the Navy, was responsible for the alleged malfunction of the flight control system. Id., at 415-416. It also found, as a matter of federal law, that Sikorsky could not be held liable for the allegedly defective design of the escape hatch because, on the evidence presented, it satisfied the requirements of the "military contractor defense," which the court had recognized the same day in Tozer v. LTV Corp., 792 F.2d 403 (CA4 1986). 792 F.2d, at 414-415.

Petitioner sought review here, challenging the Court of Appeals' decision on three levels: First, petitioner contends that there is no justification in federal law for shielding Government contractors from liability for design defects in military equipment. Second, he argues in the alternative that even if such a defense should exist, the Court of Appeals' formulation of the conditions for its application is inappropriate. Finally, petitioner contends that the Court of Appeals erred in not remanding for a jury determination of whether the ele-

Page 504

ments of the defense were met in this case. We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 1029, 107 S.Ct. 872, 93 L.Ed.2d 827 (1986).

II

Petitioner's broadest contention is that, in the absence of legislation specifically immunizing Government contractors from liability for design defects, there is no basis for judicial recognition of such a defense. We disagree. In most fields of activity, to be sure, this Court has refused to find federal pre-emption of state law in the absence of either a clear statutory prescription, see, e.g., Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519, 525, 97 S.Ct. 1305, 1309, 51 L.Ed.2d 604 (1977); Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230, 67 S.Ct. 1146, 1152, 91 L.Ed. 1447 (1947), or a direct conflict between federal and state law, see, e.g., Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132, 142-143, 83 S.Ct. 1210, 1217-1218, 10 L.Ed.2d 248 (1963); Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67, 61 S.Ct. 399, 404, 85 L.Ed. 581 (1941). But we have held that a few areas, involving "uniquely federal interests," Texas Industries, Inc. v. Radcliff Materials, Inc., 451 U.S. 630, 640, 101 S.Ct. 2061, 2067, 68 L.Ed.2d 500 (1981), are so committed by the Constitution and laws of the United States to federal control that state law is pre-empted and replaced, where necessary, by federal law of a content prescribed (absent explicit statutory directive) by the courts—so-called "federal common law." See, e.g., United States v. Kimbell Foods, Inc., 440 U.S. 715, 726-729, 99 S.Ct. 1448, 1457-1459, 59 L.Ed.2d 711 (1979); Banco Nacional v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 426-427, 84 S.Ct. 923, 939-940, 11 L.Ed.2d 804 (1964); Howard v. Lyons, 360 U.S. 593, 597, 79 S.Ct. 1331, 1333, 3 L.Ed.2d 1454 (1959); Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, 318 U.S. 363, 366-367, 63 S.Ct. 573, 574-575, 87 L.Ed. 838 (1943); D'Oench, Duhme & Co. v. FDIC, 315 U.S. 447, 457-458, 62 S.Ct. 676, 679-680, 86 L.Ed. 956 (1942).

The dispute in the present case borders upon two areas that we have found to...

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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • February 12, 2018
    ...Boyle and YearsleyThe government contractor defense was defined by the United States Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp. , 487 U.S. 500, 509–12, 108 S.Ct. 2510, 101 L.Ed.2d 442 (1988). The defense grew out of the holding in Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Constr. Co. , 309 U.S. 18, 60......
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    • February 24, 1998
    ...of the United States and its officials or in those few areas involving "uniquely federal interests." Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500, 504, 108 S.Ct. 2510, 2514, 101 L.Ed.2d 442 (1988). The Supreme Court has cautioned against the broad use of federal common law. See, e.g., M......
  • W.C. & A.N. Miller Companies v. U.S., Civil Action No. 96-00453.
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    ...to be obtained against such considerations as staffing, funding, national security, and safety. Cf. Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500, 511, 108 S.Ct. 2510, 2518, 101 L.Ed.2d 442 (1988) ("selection of the appropriate design for military equipment to be used by our Armed Forces......
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