Feres v. United States Jefferson v. United States United States v. Griggs

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation71 S.Ct. 153,95 L.Ed. 152,340 U.S. 135
Docket Number29,Nos. 9,31,s. 9
Decision Date04 December 1950

Mr. David H. Moses, Suffern, N.Y., for petitioner Feres.

Mr. Morris Rosenberg, Baltimore, Md., for petitioner Jefferson.

Mr. Newell A. Clapp, Washington, D.C., for the United States.

Mr. Frederick P. Cranston, Denver, Colo., for respondent Griggs.

Mr. Justice JACKSON, delivered the opinion of the Court.

A common issue arising under the Tort Claims Act, as to which Courts of Appeals are in conflict, makes it appropriate to consider three cases in one opinion.

The Feres case: The District Court dismissed an action by the executrix of Feres against the United States to recover for death caused by negligence. Decedent perished by fire in the barracks at Pine Camp, New York, while on active duty in service of the United States. Negligence was alleged in quartering him in barracks known or which should have been known to be unsafe because of a defective heating plant, and in failing to maintain an adequate fire watch. The Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, affirmed.1

The Jefferson case: Plaintiff, while in the Army, was required to undergo an abdominal operation. About eight months later, in the course of another operation after plaintiff was discharged, a towel 30 inches long by 18 inches wide, marked 'Medical Department U.S. Army,' was discovered and removed from his stomach. The complaint alleged that it was negligently left there by the army surgeon. The District Court, being doubtful of the law, refused without prejudice the Government's pretrial motion to dismiss the complaint.2 After trial, finding negligence as a fact, Judge Chesnut carefully reexamined the issue of law and concluded that the Act does not charge the United States with liability in this type of case.3 The Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, affirmed.4

The Griggs case: The District Court dismissed the complaint of Griggs' executrix, which alleged that while on active duty he met death because of negligent and unskillful medical treatment by army surgeons. The Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, reversed and, one judge dissenting, held that the complaint stated a cause of action under the Act.5

The common fact underlying the three cases is that each claimant, while on active duty and not on furlough, sustained injury due to negligence of others in the armed forces. The only issue of law raised is whether the Tort Claims Act extends its remedy to one sustaining 'incident to the service' what under other circumstances would be an actionable wrong. This is the 'wholly different case' reserved from our decision in Brooks v. United States, 337 U.S. 49, 52, 69 S.Ct. 918, 920, 93 L.Ed. 1200.

There are few guiding materials for our task of statutory construction. No committee reports or floor debates disclose what effect the statute was designed to have on the problem before us, or that it even was in mind. Under these circumstances, no conclusion can be above challenge, but if we misinterpret the Act, at least Congress possesses a ready remedy.

We do not overlook considerations persuasive of liability in these cases. The Act does confer district court jurisdiction generally over claims for money damages against the United States founded on negligence. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), 28 U.S.C.A. § 1346(b). It does contemplate that the Government will sometimes respond for negligence of military personnel, for it defines 'employee of the Government' to include 'members of the military or naval forces of the United States,' and provides that "acting within the scope of his office or employment' in the case of a member of the military or naval forces of the United States, means acting in line of duty.' 28 U.S.C. § 2671, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2671. Its exceptions might also imply inclusion of claims such as we have here. 28 U.S.C. § 2680(j), 28 U.S.C.A. § 2680(j) excepts 'any claim arising out of the combatant activities of the military or naval forces, or the Coast Guard, during time of war' (emphasis supplied), from which it is said we should infer allowance of claims arising from non-combat activities in peace. Section 2680(k) excludes 'any claim arising in a foreign country.' Significance also has been attributed in these cases, as in the Brooks case, supra, 337 U.S. at page 51, 69 S.Ct. 919, to the fact that eighteen tort claims bills were introduced in Congress between 1925 and 1935 and all but two expressly denied recovery to members of the armed forces; but the bill enacted as the present Tort Claims Act from its introduction made no exception. We also are reminded that the Brooks case, in spite of its reservation of service-connected injuries, interprets the Act to cover claims not incidental to service, and it is argued that much of its reasoning is as apt to impose liability in favor of a man on duty as in favor of one on leave. These considerations, it is said, should persuade us to cast upon Congress, as author of the confusion, the task of qualifying and clarifying its language if the liability here asserted should prove so depleting of the public treasury as the Government fears.

This Act, however, should be construed to fit, so far as will comport with its words, into the entire statutory system of remedies against the Government to make a workable, consistent and equitable whole. The Tort Claims Act was not an isolated and spontaneous flash of congressional generosity. It marks the culmination of a long effort to mitigate unjust consequences of sovereign immunity from suit. While the political theory that the King could do so wrong was repudiated in America, a legal doctrine derived from it that the Crown is immune from any suit to which it has not consented6 was invoked on behalf of the Republic and applied by our courts as vigorously as it had been on behalf of the Crown.7 As the Federal Government expanded its activities, its agents caused a multiplying number of remediless wrongs—wrongs which would have been actionable if inflicted by an individual or a corporation but remedi- less solely because their perpetrator was an officer or employee of the Government. Relief was often sought and sometimes granted through private bills in Congress, the number of which steadily increased as Government activity increased. The volume of these private bills, the inadequacy of congressional machinery for determination of facts, the importunities to which claimants subjected members of Congress, and the capricious results, led to a strong demand that claims for tort wrongs be submitted to adjudication. Congress already had waived immunity and made the Government answerable for breaches of its contracts and certain other types of claims.8 At last, in connection with the Reorganization Act, it waived immunity and transferred the burden of examining tort claims to the courts. The primary purpose of the Act was to extend a remedy to those who had been without; if it incidentally benefited those already well provided for, it appears to have been unintentional. Congress was suffering from no plague of private bills on the behalf of military and naval personnel, because a comprehensive system of relief had been authorized for them and their dependents by statute.

Looking to the detail of the Act, it is true that it provides, broadly, that the District Court 'shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages * * *.'9 This confers jurisdiction to render judgment upon all such claims. But it does not say that all claims must be allowed. Jurisdiction is necessary to deny a claim on its merits as matter of law as much as to adjudge that liability exists. We interpret this language to mean all it says, but no more. Jurisdiction of the defendant now exists where the defendant was immune from suit before; it remains for courts, in exercise of their jurisdiction, to determine whether any claim is recognizable in law.

For this purpose, the Act goes on to prescribe the test of allowable claims, which is, 'The United States shall be liable * * * in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances * * *,' with certain exceptions not material here. 28 U.S.C. § 2674, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2674. It will be seen that this is not the creation of new causes of action but acceptance of liability under circumstances that would bring private liability into existence. This, we think, embodies the same idea that its English equivalent enacted in 1947 (Crown Proceedings Act 1947; 10 and 11 Geo. VI, c. 44, p. 863) expressed, 'Where any person has a claim against the Crown after the commencement of this Act, and, if this Act had not been passed, the claim might have been enforced, subject to the grant * * *' of consent to be sued, the claim may now be enforced without specific consent. One obvious shortcoming in these claims is that plaintiffs can point to no liability of a 'private individual' even remotely analogous to that which they are asserting against the United States. We know of no American law which ever has permitted a soldier to recover for negligence, against either his superior officers or the Government he is serving.10 Nor is there any liability 'under like circumstances,' for no private individual has power to conscript or mobilize a private army with such authorities over persons as the Government vests in echelons of command. The nearest parallel, even if we were to treat 'private individual' as including a state, would be the relationship between the states and their militia. But if we indulge plaintiffs the benefit of this comparison, claimants cite us no state, and we know of none, which has permitted members of its militia to maintain tort actions for injuries suffered in the service, and in at least one state the contrary has been held to be the case.11 It is true that if we consider relevant only a...

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