Massachusetts Bonding Insurance Co v. United States

Citation1 L.Ed.2d 189,352 U.S. 128,77 S.Ct. 186
Decision Date10 December 1956
Docket NumberNo. 31,31
PartiesMASSACHUSETTS BONDING & INSURANCE CO. and Kathleen F. Crowley, Administratrix of the Estate of Jeremiah C. Crowley, Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES of America
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. John R. Kewer, Boston, Mass., for petitioners.

Mr. Paul A. Sweeney, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2674, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1346(b), 2674, to recover money damages from the United States on account of the death of one Crowley, caused by negligent operation of traveling cranes by various government employees in a federal arsenal located in Massachusetts.1 The Act makes the United States liable for the negligence of its 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), 28 U.S.C.A. § 1346(b). That provision makes the law of Massachusetts govern the liability of the United States for this tort.

The Massachusetts Death Act, in relevant part, provides that a person, whose agents or servants by negligence cause the death of another not in his employment or service, 'shall be liable in damages in the sum of not less than two thousand nor more than twenty thousand dollars, to be assessed with reference to the degree of his culpability or of that of his agents or servants.' Mass.Ann.Laws, 1955, c. 229, § 2C. The assessment of damages with reference to the degree of culpability of the tort-feasor, rather than with reference to the amount of pecuniary loss suffered by the next of kin, makes those damages punitive in nature. That has been the holding of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. As stated in Macchiaroli v. Howell, 294 Mass. 144, 147, 200 N.E. 905, 906, 'The chief characteristic of the statute is penal.' And see Arnold v. Jacobs, 316 Mass. 81, 84, 54 N.E.2d 922; Porter v. Sorell, 280 Mass. 457, 460—461, 182 N.E. 837, 85 A.L.R. 1159.

The Tort Claims Act, however, provides in § 28 U.S.C. § 2674, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2674, that:

'The United States shall be liable * * * in the same manner and to the same extent as a private indi- vidual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages.

'If, however, in any case wherein death was caused, the law of the place where the act or omission complained of occurred provides, or has been construed to provide, for damages only punitive in nature, the United States shall be liable for actual or compensatory damages, measured by the pecuniary injuries resulting from such death to the persons respectively, for whose benefit the action was brought, in lieu thereof.' (Italics added.)

The District Court accordingly held that, since the United States was liable for 'actual or compensatory' damages and not for 'punitive' damages, the minimum and maximum limits contained in the Massachusetts Death Act were not applicable. It entered judgment for the plaintiffs in the amount of $60,000. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Massachusetts Death Act, though punitive, sets the maximum that may be recovered in compensatory damages under the Tort Claims Act. 227 F.2d 385. The case is here on certiorari which we granted to review this important question of construction of the Tort Claims Act, 350 U.S. 980, 76 S.Ct. 469.

The provision of the Act, making the United States liable 'for actual or compensatory damages' where the law of the place provides 'for damages only punitive in nature,' goes back to a 1947 amendment. Alabama2 and Massachusetts3 award only punitive damages for wrong- ful deaths. Controversies soon arose in those two States in suits under the Act, the Government maintaining that, since local law assessed only 'punitive damages,' it was not liable. Several bills were introduced to remedy the situation.4 But the solution agreed upon was in a proposal tendered by the Comptroller General. In reference to the Alabama and Massachusetts rule, the spokesman of the Comptroller General stated:5

'Since in those two states compensatory damages are not allowed, all that is required is to amend the Federal Tort Claims Act to say that in such states compensatory damages shall be allowed. * * * It is believed that that suggestion whould eliminate the discrepancy and would make the settlement of claims in those two states to be exactly in accord with the general rules followed in the other 46 states. * * *'

The Government seizes on this statement and like ones in the Committee Reports (see S.Rep.No. 763, 80th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 2; H.R.Rep.No. 748, 80th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 2) to argue that unless the ceiling provided in the Massachusetts law is respected, discrimination against the United States will be shown in Massachusetts since over a dozen States have ceilings on compensatory damages. It is also argued that the sole purpose of the amendment was to permit recovery for wrongful death in the two States where punitive damages could be awarded, not to alter the measure of recovery in those States. It is true that Congress was not legislating as to ceilings. Congress was, however, legislating as to the measure of the damages that could be recovered against the United States. As a result of the 1947 amendment, the United States became liable not for 'punitive damages' but for 'actual or compensatory' damages, where the law of the place provides for damages 'only punitive in nature.' 28 U.S.C. § 2674, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2674. The measure of damages adopted was 'the pecuniary injuries' resulting from the death.

It is argued that Massachusetts does not provide damages 'only punitive in nature' within the meaning of the Act; that even punitive damages serve a remedial end, as recognized by the Massachusetts court under that State's Death Act. See Sullivan v. Hustis, 237 Mass. 441, 447, 130 N.E. 247, 15 A.L.R. 1360; Putnam v. Savage, 244 Mass. 83, 85, 138 N.E. 808. It is said that Massachusetts law does not provide true punitive damages since the latter are never awarded for negligence alone and are generally imposed in addition to, not in lieu of, compensatory damages. These and related reasons are advanced for treating the Massachusetts measure of damages as the measure of 'actual or compensatory' damages recoverable against the United States under the Act.

We reject that reasoning. The standard of liability imposed by the Congress is at war with the one provided by Massachusetts. The standard of liability under the Massachusetts Death Act is punitive—i.e., 'with reference to the degree' of culpability—not compensatory. The standard under the Tort Claims Act is 'compensatory,' i.e., 'measured by the pecuniary injuries' result- ng from the death. There is nothing in the Massachusetts law which measures the damages by 'pecuniary injuries.' The Massachusetts law, therefore, cannot be taken to define the nature of the damages that can be recovered under the Tort Claims Act.

In those States where punitive damages only are allowed for wrongful death, a limitation on the amount of liability has no relevance to the policy of placing limits on liability where damages are only compensatory. By definition, punitive damages are based upon the degree of the defendant's culpability. Where a state legislature imposes a maximum limit on such a punitive measure, it has decided that this is the highest punishment which should be imposed on a wrongdoer. This limitation, based as it is on concepts of punishment, cannot control a recovery from which Congress has eliminated all considerations of punishment.

Nor can it be concluded that the amendment was designed to remove discrimination in Alabama and Massachusets between the recoveries allowed in suits against the Government and in suits against individual defendants. The amendment, in fact, perpetuates those differences. In suits in those States, recovery against the Government and against a private defendant will not be the same in identical circumstances. Where the degree of fault is high, but the pecuniary injury slight, a large recovery will represent the degree of the individual defendant's culpability, but the Government will be liable only for the slight amount of damage actually done. On the other hand, where fault is slight, but the pecuniary injury great, the individual defendant's liability will similarly be less than that of the Government. These differences in recovery are inherent in the different measures of damages applicable in suits against the Government and against a private defendant where the State chooses to provide a punitive measure of damages for wrongful death. By adopting in such a State a compensatory measure of damages in suits against the Government, Congress deliberately chose to permit these substantial differences in recovery to exist. We therefore cannot infer that Congress has, at the same time, provided that maximum recoveries be identical.

The solution that Congress chose was (a) the adoption of the local law—whether punitive or compensatory—to determine the existence of liability of the United States, and (b) the substitution of 'compensatory' for 'punitive' damages where local law provides only the latter. When Congress rejected liability for 'punitive' damages, we conclude it went the whole way and made inoperative the rules of local law governing the imposition of 'punitive' damages. When Congress adopted 'actual or compensatory damages,' measured by the 'pecuniary injuries,' as the measure of liability in those States that awarded damages 'only punitive in nature,' we conclude it did not preserve as a limitation on 'compensatory' damages the limitation imposed by local law on 'punitive' damages. It would require considerable tailoring of the Act to make it read that way. We refuse the invitation to achieve the...

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