Johnson v. U.S.

Decision Date13 July 1978
Docket NumberNo. 76-2197,76-2197
Citation49 A.L.R.Fed. 311,576 F.2d 606
PartiesNora Faye JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Gary B. Tullis, Charles H. Murchison, Jacksonville, Fla., for plaintiff-appellant.

John L. Briggs, U. S. Atty., Ernst D. Mueller, Asst. U. S. Atty., Jacksonville, Fla., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Before GEE and FAY, Circuit Judges. *

GEE, Circuit Judge:

In this action under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), we are called upon to determine the appropriate doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel that are to be applied under this statute. The facts of the case set out a particularly compelling drama. In May 1970, Sergeant Jimmy Ray Johnson moved with his wife, Nora Faye Johnson, appellant in the instant case, and their two young children to the vicinity of Fort Stewart, Georgia, where Sergeant Johnson had been posted. During that summer Sergeant Johnson approached an army chaplain about his marital difficulties, apparently brought on by differences over the manner in which Johnson disciplined the children, a manner that Mrs. Johnson thought much too severe. During the late summer and fall of 1970 the Johnsons received marriage counseling at the post's Mental Hygiene Clinic. Although much of the Johnsons' contact was with lower ranking clinic staff, the clinic psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Meredith, noted the sergeant's possible mental illness and in September ordered him hospitalized for ten days; the discharge diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. Sergeant Johnson was prescribed anti-psychotic medication for this condition, but he soon stopped taking the medication.

Over these autumn months the Johnsons' relationship experienced ups and downs, but Sergeant Johnson on occasion complained at the clinic of agitation and nervousness. His wife reported that he continued to discipline the children severely and that he made threats of serious violence to her and others, along with threats of suicide. In early December Mrs. Johnson left her husband and went with her children to Jacksonville, Florida, where she stayed with her sister. There she admitted herself to a hospital for thirteen days, complaining of depression and an inability to cope with her family situation.

After her release she returned to Georgia to live with her brother, Carroll Johns, in Waynesville, about 80 miles from Fort Stewart. Although her Florida doctor had recommended that she not stay with her husband, she did see Sergeant Johnson on December 26, when he visited the Johns residence. The visit went badly: Sergeant Johnson wished to take the children to his mother's residence; his wife refused; Johnson threatened to shoot her, although he later calmed down.

Soon after the new year, on January 4, 1971, Johnson again saw Dr. Meredith at the clinic. Dr. Meredith noted Johnson's erratic behavior, learned that he had not been taking his medication, and once again started him on anti-psychotic drugs. Two days later Johnson got into a heated telephone dispute with his wife. He then went to the Johns residence and sexually assaulted her. As a result, Carroll Johns immediately took out a peace warrant, and within two days Johnson was in jail on the warrant. However, Mrs. Johnson and her brother were persuaded to permit Johnson to be released on condition that he return to the post hospital. Mrs. Johnson called Dr. Meredith to inform him of these events, as well as of the December 26 threat on her life.

Dr. Meredith saw Sergeant Johnson again on January 11, when Johnson came to the clinic under the escort of his unit commander; he was hospitalized the same day for a ten-day period. Dr. Meredith allowed him to be released from the hospital on January 21, again prescribing drugs and arranging a January 26 clinic appointment for Johnson. Two days later Johnson again went to Waynesville and saw his wife, this time without incident.

On January 25, Johnson requested leave from his unit commander to straighten out his domestic affairs. The captain, however, denied this request because he felt that Sergeant Johnson would only get into more trouble. Sergeant Johnson appealed to the battalion commander who, apparently after consulting Dr. Meredith, ordered that the leave be granted. Sergeant Johnson then met his wife in her brother's office in the presence of her brother and a deputy sheriff. The conversation quickly led to serious altercations, as did a telephone discussion the next afternoon. That evening Sergeant Johnson appeared at the Johns residence, where he killed Carroll Johns by firing through a window with a shotgun. He then ran into the house to his wife's bedroom, shot and wounded her, and finally ran back outside where he shot himself to death.

Within the year both Carroll Johns' widow and Mrs. Johnson filed suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Both suits charged damage due to the negligence of army employees, particularly in the negligent release of Sergeant Johnson from the army hospital and base without warning. Carroll Johns' widow filed her wrongful death action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia; that case resulted in a judgment for Mrs. Johns. Agnes Jacobs Johns v. United States, Civil No. 769, decision filed August 6, 1973, appeal dism'd April 18, 1974, No. 73-4030, 5th Cir. 1974. Sergeant Johnson's widow, appellant in the present case, filed two actions in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, one (case No. 71-921-CIV-J-T) seeking one million dollars in damages for her own injuries, and the other (case No. 71-922-CIV-J-T) seeking an additional one million dollars for her husband's wrongful death. The district court decided these companion cases together. It denied a motion for summary judgment based on the collateral-estoppel effects of the Johns case but did take into evidence the entire trial record of the prior case; after hearing additional testimony, the court concluded, contrary to the court in Johns, that there was no negligence on the part of any agent of the government and no malpractice on the part of Dr. Meredith in particular.

The parties agree that the Tort Claims Act requires the federal court generally to apply Georgia law in determining liability. But appellant argues, among other points, that the district court erred in failing to hold the United States collaterally estopped on the issue of negligence and cites numerous federal authorities in support of this position. The United States on its part urges that these federal authorities are inapplicable and that under the Federal Tort Claims Act the court was required to apply the collateral estoppel rules of Georgia. That state's courts, unlike the federal courts, have retained the requirement of mutuality in applying principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Mundy v. Cincinnati Insurance Co., 141 Ga.App. 106, 232 S.E.2d 621 (1977); King Sales Co. v. McKey, 105 Ga.App. 787, 125 S.E.2d 684 (1962). Thus, since the present appellant was not a party to the Johns case and could not herself have been bound by any judgment or finding in that case under Georgia rules she may not take advantage of the prior judgment and bind the United States to it, even though the United States was itself a party to the prior judgment. Hence, if the Georgia rules of collateral estoppel apply, the federal trial court did not err in refusing to bind the United States to facts established in the prior federal judgment, since Georgia courts would not have done so among themselves. On the other hand, if federal collateral estoppel rules apply, the United States arguably should have been estopped from reasserting its nonnegligence, since this issue was decided against it in the prior case. Thus, our initial question is whether a federal court, in considering the effect of the judgment of another federal court, should apply federal or Georgia rules of collateral estoppel in an action under the Tort Claims Act.

I. Federal or State Rules of Collateral Estoppel.

We begin our inquiry by noting the significance of preclusionary principles for our judiciary. As we said in Southwest Airlines Co. v. Texas International Airlines, 546 F.2d 84, 94 (5th Cir. 1977):

The principle of res judicata serves several policies important to our judicial system. By declaring an end to litigation, the doctrine adds certainty and stability to social institutions. This certainty in turn generates public respect for the courts. By preventing relitigation of issues, res judicata conserves judicial time and resources. It also supports several private interests, including avoidance of substantial litigation expenses, protection from harassment or coercion by lawsuit, and avoidance of conflicting rights and duties from inconsistent judgments.

State and federal applications of res judicata principles may differ, however, as they do in the present case. Whether state or federal principles apply here must be resolved in the light of the Federal Tort Claims Act itself.

The primary purpose of the Federal Tort Claims Act was "to remove the sovereign immunity of the United States from suits in tort and, with certain specific exceptions, to render the Government liable in tort as a private individual would be under like circumstances." Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 6, 82 S.Ct. 585, 589, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962). In deciding cases under this Act the federal courts generally apply state law, since the Act directs the federal courts to decide liability "in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred," 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b) in this case, of course, Georgia. In Richards the Supreme Court noted that:

It is evident that the Act was not patterned to operate with complete independence from the...

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