Miree v. Kalb County, Georgia Phillips v. Kalb County, Georgia Fireman Fund Insurance Company v. Kalb County, Georgia Fields v. Kalb County, Georgia, Nos. 76-607

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtREHNQUIST
PartiesGeorge Henson MIREE et al., Petitioners, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al. Judith Anita PHILLIPS, etc., Petitioner, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al. FIREMAN'S FUND INSURANCE COMPANY, Petitioner, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al. William Michael FIELDS, Petitioner, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al
Decision Date21 June 1977
Docket NumberNos. 76-607,76-700 and 76-722,76-659

433 U.S. 25
97 S.Ct. 2490
53 L.Ed.2d 557
George Henson MIREE et al., Petitioners,

v.

DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al. Judith Anita PHILLIPS, etc., Petitioner, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al. FIREMAN'S FUND INSURANCE COMPANY, Petitioner, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al. William Michael FIELDS, Petitioner, v. DeKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al.

Nos. 76-607, 76-659, 76-700 and 76-722.
Argued April 27, 1977.
Decided June 21, 1977.
Syllabus

1. In petitioners' consolidated diversity actions against respondent county arising out of an aircraft crash at the county's airport, state rather than federal law held to apply to the resolution of petitioners' claim that, as, respectively, survivors of deceased passengers, the assignee of the aircraft owner, and a burn victim, they are the third-party beneficiaries of grant contracts between the county and the Federal Aviation Administration whereby the county agreed to restrict the use of land adjacent to or near the airport to activities compatible with normal aircraft operations, including landings and takeoffs; that the county breached these contracts by operating a garbage dump adjacent to the airport; and that the cause of the crash was the ingestion of birds swarming from the dump into the aircraft's jet engines shortly after takeoff. The rationale of Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, 318 U.S. 363, 63 S.Ct. 573, 87 L.Ed. 838, that federal common law may govern in diversity cases where a uniform national rule is necessary to further the Federal Government's interest, is inapplicable, since only the rights of private litigants are at issue and no substantial rights or duties of the United States hinge on the outcome of the litigation. Pp. 28-33.

2. Petitioners' claim, argued in this Court, that the Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970 provides an implied civil right of action to recover for death or injury due to violation of the Act, will not be considered where it was neither pleaded, argued, nor briefed in the courts below. Pp. 33-34.

538 F.2d 643, vacated and remanded.

Page 26

J. Arthur Mozley, Atlanta, Ga., and Alan W. Heldman, Birmingham, Ala., for petitioners.

F. Clay Bush, Atlanta, Ga., for respondents.

Mr. Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

These consolidated cases arise out of the 1973 crash of a Lear Jet shortly after takeoff from the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, en banc, affirmed the dismissal of petitioners' complaint against respondent DeKalb County (hereafter respondent), holding that principles of federal common law were applicable to the resolution of petitioners' breach-of-contract claim. We granted certiorari to consider whether federal or state law should have been applied to that claim; we conclude that the latter should govern.

I

Petitioners are, respectively, the survivors of deceased passengers, the assignee of the jet aircraft owner, and a burn victim. They brought separate lawsuits, later consolidated, against respondent in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.1 The basis for federal jurisdiction was diversity of citizenship, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and the complaints asserted that respondent was liable on three inde-

Page 27

pendent theories: negligence, nuisance, and breach of contract. The District Court granted respondent's motion to dismiss each of these claims. The courts below have unanimously agreed that the negligence and nuisance theories are without merit; only the propriety of the dismissal of the contract claims remains in the cases.

(1) Petitioners seek to impose liability on respondent as third-party beneficiaries of contracts between it and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Their complaints allege that respondent entered into six grant agreements with the FAA. E. g., App. 15.2 Under the terms of the contracts respondent agreed to

"take action to restrict the use of land adjacent to or in the immediate vicinity of the Airport to activities and purposes compatible with normal airport operations including landing and takeoff of aircraft." Id., at 19.

Petitioners assert that respondent breached the FAA contracts by owning and maintaining a garbage dump adjacent to the airport, and that the cause of the crash was the ingestion of birds swarming from the dump into the jet engines of the aircraft.

Applying Georgia law, the District Court found that petitioners' claims as third-party beneficiaries under the FAA contracts were barred by the county's governmental immunity, and dismissed the complaints under Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 12(b)(6). A divided panel of the Court of Appeals decided that under state law petitioners could sue as third-party beneficiaries and that governmental immunity would not bar the suit. Miree v. United States, 526 F.2d 679 (C.A.5 1976). The dissenting judge argued that the court should have applied federal rather than state law; he concluded that under the principles of federal common law the petitioners in this case

Page 28

did not have standing to sue as third-party beneficiaries of the contracts. Sitting en banc, the Court of Appeals reversed the panel on the breach-of-contract issue and adopted the panel dissent on this point as its opinion. Miree v. United States, 538 F.2d 643 (C.A.5 1976). Judge Morgan, who had written the panel opinion, argued for five dissenters that there was no identifiable federal interest in the outcome of this diversity case, and thus that federal common law had no applicability.

II

Since the only basis of federal jurisdiction alleged for petitioners' claim against respondent is diversity of citizenship, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, the case would unquestionably be governed by Georgia law. Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938), but for the fact that the United States is a party to the contracts in question, entered into pursuant to federal statute. See Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970, 84 Stat. 219, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq. (1970 ed. and Supp. V). The en banc majority of the Court of Appeals adopted, by reference, the view that, given these factors, application of federal common law was required:

"Although jurisdiction here is based upon diversity, the contract we are interpreting is one in which the United States is a party, and one which is entered into pursuant to authority conferred by federal statute. The necessity of uniformity of decision demands that federal common law, rather than state law, control the contract's interpretation. United States v. Seckinger, 1970, 397 U.S. 203, 90 S.Ct. 880, 25 L.Ed.2d 224; Smith v. United States, 5 Cir. 1974, 497 F.2d 500; First National Bank v. Small Business Administration, 5 Cir. 1970, 429 F.2d 280." Miree v. United States, 526 F.2d, at 686 (footnote omitted).

(2, 3) We do not agree with the conclusion of the Court of Appeals. The litigation before us raises no question regarding the liability of the United States or the responsibilities of the

Page 29

United States under the contracts. The relevant inquiry is a narrow one: whether petitioners as third-party beneficiaries of the contracts have standing to sue respondent. While federal common law may govern even in diversity cases 3 where a uniform national rule is necessary to further the interests of the Federal Government, Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, 318 U.S. 363, 63 S.Ct. 573, 87 L.Ed. 838 (1943), the application of federal common law to resolve the issue presented here would promote no federal interests even approaching the magnitude of those found in Clearfield Trust :

"The issuance of commercial paper by the United States is on a vast scale and transactions in that paper from issuance to payment will commonly occur in several states. The application of state law, even without the conflict of laws rules of the forum, would subject the rights and duties of the United States to exceptional uncertainty. It would lead to great diversity in results by making identical transactions subject to the vagaries of the laws of the several states. The desirability of a uniform rule is plain." Id., at 367, 63 S.Ct., at 575.

But, in this case, the resolution of petitioners' breach-of-contract claim against respondent will have no direct effect upon the United States or its Treasury.4 The Solicitor General, waiving his right to respond in these cases advised us:

"In the...

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538 practice notes
  • Shapiro, Lifschitz & Schram, P.C. v. Hazard, Civil Action No. 96-1079 SSH.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 30, 1998
    ...and liberally construed in their favor. Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C.Cir.1979) (citing Miree v. DeKalb County, 433 U.S. 25, 27 n. 2, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977)). "However, legal conclusions, deductions or opinions couched as factual allegations are not giv......
  • Marcus v. AT&T Corp., Docket Nos. 96-9244
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • February 24, 1998
    ...101 L.Ed.2d 442 (1988). The Supreme Court has cautioned against the broad use of federal common law. See, e.g., Miree v. DeKalb County, 433 U.S. 25, 31-32, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 2494-95, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977) (federal common law does not govern aircrash survivors' suit against county as third-part......
  • Emory v. Peeler, No. 83-8477
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • April 8, 1985
    ...on the doctrine of pendent jurisdiction. 3 Treating the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true, Miree v. DeKalb County, Ga., 433 U.S. 25, 27 n. 2, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 2492 n. 2, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977), we review the complaint to determine whether it appears beyond a doubt that the plai......
  • National Elec. Benefit Fund v. Heary Bros., No. 91-CV-717A.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Western District of New York
    • July 28, 1995
    ...inferences in favor of the non-moving party. 2A Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 12.072.-5, p. 12-63 (1992); Miree v. DeKalb Co., Georgia, 433 U.S. 25, 27 n. 2, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 2492 n. 2, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977). However, legal conclusions, 931 F. Supp. 184 deductions or opinions couched as factual ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
538 cases
  • Shapiro, Lifschitz & Schram, P.C. v. Hazard, Civil Action No. 96-1079 SSH.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 30, 1998
    ...and liberally construed in their favor. Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C.Cir.1979) (citing Miree v. DeKalb County, 433 U.S. 25, 27 n. 2, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977)). "However, legal conclusions, deductions or opinions couched as factual allegations are not giv......
  • Marcus v. AT&T Corp., Docket Nos. 96-9244
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • February 24, 1998
    ...101 L.Ed.2d 442 (1988). The Supreme Court has cautioned against the broad use of federal common law. See, e.g., Miree v. DeKalb County, 433 U.S. 25, 31-32, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 2494-95, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977) (federal common law does not govern aircrash survivors' suit against county as third-part......
  • Emory v. Peeler, No. 83-8477
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • April 8, 1985
    ...on the doctrine of pendent jurisdiction. 3 Treating the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true, Miree v. DeKalb County, Ga., 433 U.S. 25, 27 n. 2, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 2492 n. 2, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977), we review the complaint to determine whether it appears beyond a doubt that the plai......
  • National Elec. Benefit Fund v. Heary Bros., No. 91-CV-717A.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Western District of New York
    • July 28, 1995
    ...inferences in favor of the non-moving party. 2A Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 12.072.-5, p. 12-63 (1992); Miree v. DeKalb Co., Georgia, 433 U.S. 25, 27 n. 2, 97 S.Ct. 2490, 2492 n. 2, 53 L.Ed.2d 557 (1977). However, legal conclusions, 931 F. Supp. 184 deductions or opinions couched as factual ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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