Rawl v. U.S., No. 84-2333

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore PHILLIPS and MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judges, and BUTZNER; MURNAGHAN
Citation778 F.2d 1009
PartiesJulian W. RAWL, Administrator of the Estate of Edwin E. Rawl, Jr., Appellee, v. UNITED STATES of America, Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 84-2333
Decision Date04 December 1985

Page 1009

778 F.2d 1009
Julian W. RAWL, Administrator of the Estate of Edwin E.
Rawl, Jr., Appellee,
v.
UNITED STATES of America, Appellant.
No. 84-2333.
United States Court of Appeals,
Fourth Circuit.
Argued Sept. 10, 1985.
Decided Dec. 4, 1985.

Page 1010

Gary W. Allen, Acting Director (Torts Branch, Civil Div., U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., Henry Dargan McMaster, U.S. Atty., Columbia, S.C., Richard K. Willard, Acting Asst. Atty. Gen., Washington, D.C., on brief), for appellant.

Arnold S. Goodstein (Diane Schafer Goodstein, North Charleston, S.C., on brief), for appellee.

Before PHILLIPS and MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judges, and BUTZNER, Senior Circuit Judge.

Page 1011

MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judge:

The United States Government appeals from a decision in the district court awarding damages in a wrongful death action. Edwin E. Rawl, Jr., and his wife Josie W. Rawl died in a small airplane crash outside of Grand Strand Airport at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. 1 Plaintiffs, the Rawls' children, claimed damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1346(b) for the death of Edwin E. Rawl, Jr., arguing that the United States Air Force air traffic controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration were negligent in providing assistance to the decedent. Judge C. Weston Houck of the District of South Carolina found that the government was negligent and that the negligence proximately caused Rawl's death. Judge Houck assumed for argument's sake that Rawl, the pilot of the airplane, also was negligent, but declined to bar the claims on grounds of contributory negligence because he deemed the government's negligence to be an intervening and superseding occurrence, relieving Rawl of responsibility for his own death. We do not disturb the lower court's finding as to negligence on the part of the government, but reverse the contributory negligence ruling, vacating the award of $300,000.

I. Background

The facts are far from simple. The incident occurred in airspace around the Grand Strand Airport near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Grand Strand functioned principally for non-military aircraft. Because Grand Strand Airport had no radar of its own, the nearby Myrtle Beach Air Force base operated radar approach control ("RAPCON") for Grand Strand.

Rawl was an experienced pilot with over 2500 hours of flight time. He was certified to fly airplanes by visual flight rules ("VFR"), under which a pilot must be able to fly by sight, with a visibility of at least three miles. 14 C.F.R. Sec. 91.105 (1983). Rawl was not certified to fly by instrument flight rules ("IFR"), under which a pilot must be able to fly by instruments alone. 14 C.F.R. Secs. 91.115-.129 (1983).

On February 17, 1978, Rawl planned to fly his Beechcraft Bonanza from Grand Strand Airport to Greenville, North Carolina, pick up his wife there and return to Myrtle Beach in order to host an 8:00 p.m. dinner associated with his primary business activities. Prior to take-off from Grand Strand, Rawl contacted the Flight Service Station ("FSS") several times for a weather report: the report called for VFR conditions with hazy visibility and forecast the deterioration of those conditions in mid-evening. When Rawl departed Grand Strand at 5:45 p.m., conditions had already deteriorated to visibility of less than two miles with fog and haze present. 2 There was a broken layer of cloud at 500 feet and another layer of clouds at 3000 feet.

Rawl arrived at the Greenville airport and picked up his wife, departing again by 7:00 p.m. The sun had set. The sky was dark.

At 7:19:40 p.m. Rawl made contact with RAPCON at Myrtle Beach. Weather conditions were a ceiling of 400 feet overcast with visibility of two miles and fog and haze. At 7:20:52 p.m. Rawl told RAPCON that he was flying VFR. The RAPCON operator responded that he could not let Rawl come in under VFR, and suggested Rawl come in under Special VFR. 3 Rawl concurred. 4

Page 1012

As Rawl approached the airport, he was told to expect a ten minute delay while another plane, a Cessna, was brought in under Special VFR. While Rawl listened on the same frequency, RAPCON attempted to bring the Cessna into the airport. The Cessna made several passes over the airport and was unable to locate it. An emergency situation was declared for the Cessna at 7:47:05; eventually the Cessna landed safely but came to rest in the grass at the end of the runway.

At around 8:00 p.m. Rawl was cleared to approach the airport. RAPCON instructed Rawl to maintain Special VFR at or below 1500 feet. While Rawl flew toward Grand Strand, RAPCON suggested that another plane divert to Wilmington, North Carolina, where the weather was significantly less opaque. A similar suggestion was not made to Rawl nor, the district court found, did Rawl hear the suggestion made to the other flight; Rawl was on a different radio frequency. Rawl v. United States, Civ.Act. No. 2:80-2525-2, slip op. at 7 (D.S.C. Oct. 12, 1984).

At 8:04 p.m., Rawl informed RAPCON that he had four hours of fuel left, and that, at his then-current altitude of 2500 feet, he would be unable to see the airport as he approached. At the time, Rawl was flying between two layers of cloud at 1000 feet and 3000 feet, and in darkness. The presence of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and an unpopulated section of country to the west further limited Rawl's ability to orient his aircraft by visual reference points. Rawl requested vectors for the airport so that he could "slip right down under" the weather and land. RAPCON instructed him to descend to 1600 feet.

The key series of instructions began at 8:05:17 p.m. Rawl was flying on a heading of 45? and was told to turn left 135? to a heading of 270?. At 8:06:36, RAPCON asked Rawl to state his heading, whereupon a miscommunication occurred. Rawl stated that his heading was 300?, but a portion of the transmission was inaudible; RAPCON heard only "30". The district court found that RAPCON did not ask for a clarification and instead "incorrectly assumed that the heading given was 030 and, based upon that false assumption, told Rawl to turn right to 120."

A few moments later, a supervisor at RAPCON pointed out the possibility of a miscommunication to the air controller on duty, and the latter asked Rawl for a clarification. Rawl advised that his response had been 300? and that his heading at the time of clarification was 330?. RAPCON told Rawl to turn left to 220?. Shortly after the instruction, the plane crashed, killing Rawl and his wife.

Experts at trial agreed that "spatial disorientation" 5 caused Rawl to go into a power dive and crash. Understandably, there was great dispute as to the proximate cause of Rawl's spatial disorientation.

The district court found that the negligence of the air traffic controller at RAPCON caused the spatial disorientation and the accident, and rejected the government's defense of contributory negligence on the part of Rawl. The district court relied on two theories of government negligence. Under the first theory, RAPCON failed to follow standards of due care in directing Rawl back toward the airport; the result was spatial disorientation. According to the district court, the RAPCON controller violated section 1592 of the Air Traffic Control Manual ("the Manual") by directing Rawl to make a series of "abrupt maneuvers." 6

Page 1013

] Abrupt maneuvers with no visual cues outside the aircraft can cause spatial disorientation. The district court also found RAPCON negligent in relying on Rawl's "obviously incomplete" heading report of "30 degrees." The district court concluded that "reasonable prudence and care" required RAPCON to ask for a clarification before issuing the initial vector change; the result of the initial vector followed by the heading given just after the clarification was a hard right turn followed by a hard left turn within less than one minute. Both acts of negligence, the court found, caused the spatial disorientation and the crash.

The second theory of negligence faults RAPCON for failing to suggest alternative airports where VFR conditions prevailed. The district court found that the RAPCON controller's omission violated section 1591 of the Manual. 7 The Court reasoned that the omission was a proximate cause of the crash because "it is reasonable to assume that Mr. Rawl might have chosen to land elsewhere, thus avoiding the subsequent crash" because another pilot diverted to another airport at the suggestion of RAPCON. We have, in light of our determination on the subject of contributory negligence, no occasion to inquire into the validity of the findings that the government was negligent and that the negligence amounted to proximate cause, and proceed on the assumption that they were not clearly erroneous.

The district court rejected the government's defense of contributory negligence on the part of Rawl. It described the negligent acts and omissions of RAPCON as the "intervening" or "superseding" cause of the accident. 8 Thus, under the court's view, the negligence of RAPCON was the sole cause of the accident, and Rawl's negligence did not contribute. Hence, it was claimed, it did not nullify the negligence of the government.

II. Discussion

We do not address the issue of whether the government was negligent at any length, given that the record on appeal shows substantial evidence to support the district court's findings in that regard. Accepting the district judge's determination as to negligence on the part of the government, we turn to the legal standard applied in determining a lack of relevant contributory negligence on the part of Rawl. Because we find that the district court's application

Page 1014

of the doctrine of "intervening and superseding cause" to the facts adduced at trial was wrong as a matter of law, we vacate the judgment below, and direct entry of a judgment in the government's favor.

Of course, we are aware of the limits placed upon us as an...

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29 practice notes
  • In re September 11 Litigation, No. 21 MC 101(AKH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • July 16, 2009
    ...cause—injuries arising from a force or actor wholly outside of the circumstances of the original negligence." Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009, 1016 (4th Cir.1985). A negligent party that successfully demonstrates that a third party was a superseding cause has demonstrated, in esse......
  • Kassama v. Magat, No. 837
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • February 28, 2001
    ...391, 712 A.2d 166. At bottom, however, the matter comes down to a question of semantics rather than substance. See Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009 (4th Cir. 1985), where the Court The problem of whether the superseding and intervening negligence theory is available only for the benefit......
  • May v. Giant Food, Inc., No. 1368
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1997
    ...negligent and Ratino's negligence did not constitute an intervening and superseding cause of her injury. Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009 (4th Cir.1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 814, 107 S.Ct. 67, 93 L.Ed.2d 25 (1986), a case applying South Carolina law, is instructive. There, a pilot cr......
  • Comprehensive Technologies Intern., Inc. v. Software Artisans, Inc., No. 92-1837
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • September 30, 1993
    ...independently review the district court's conclusions of law and the court's application of the law to the facts, Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009, 1014 & n. 9 (4th Cir.1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 814, 107 S.Ct. 67, 93 L.Ed.2d 25 CTI reads the district court's opinion as ruling as......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
29 cases
  • In re September 11 Litigation, No. 21 MC 101(AKH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • July 16, 2009
    ...cause—injuries arising from a force or actor wholly outside of the circumstances of the original negligence." Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009, 1016 (4th Cir.1985). A negligent party that successfully demonstrates that a third party was a superseding cause has demonstrated, in esse......
  • Kassama v. Magat, No. 837
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • February 28, 2001
    ...391, 712 A.2d 166. At bottom, however, the matter comes down to a question of semantics rather than substance. See Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009 (4th Cir. 1985), where the Court The problem of whether the superseding and intervening negligence theory is available only for the benefit......
  • May v. Giant Food, Inc., No. 1368
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1997
    ...negligent and Ratino's negligence did not constitute an intervening and superseding cause of her injury. Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009 (4th Cir.1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 814, 107 S.Ct. 67, 93 L.Ed.2d 25 (1986), a case applying South Carolina law, is instructive. There, a pilot cr......
  • Comprehensive Technologies Intern., Inc. v. Software Artisans, Inc., No. 92-1837
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • September 30, 1993
    ...independently review the district court's conclusions of law and the court's application of the law to the facts, Rawl v. United States, 778 F.2d 1009, 1014 & n. 9 (4th Cir.1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 814, 107 S.Ct. 67, 93 L.Ed.2d 25 CTI reads the district court's opinion as ruling as......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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