Rayonier Incorporated v. United States Arnhold v. United States, s. 45

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACK
Citation352 U.S. 315,77 S.Ct. 374,1 L.Ed.2d 354
PartiesRAYONIER INCORPORATED, a Corporation, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America. Arthur A. ARNHOLD et al., Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES of America
Docket Number47,Nos. 45,s. 45
Decision Date28 January 1957

352 U.S. 315
77 S.Ct. 374
1 L.Ed.2d 354
RAYONIER INCORPORATED, a Corporation, Petitioner,


UNITED STATES of America. Arthur A. ARNHOLD et al., Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES of America.

Nos. 45, 47.
Argued Dec. 4, 1956.
Decided Jan. 28, 1957.

Mr. Lucien F. Marion, Seattle, Wash., for petitioner Rayonier inc.

Mr. William H. Ferguson, Seattle, Wash., for petitioners Arnhold and others.

Mr. George Cochran Doub, Washington, D.C., for the United States.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

In both of these cases petitioners brought suit in the United States District Court in the State of Washington seeking to recover damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b) and 2671—2680, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1346(b), 2671—2680, for losses which they allege were caused by the negligence of employees of the United States in allowing a forest fire to be started on Government land and in failing to act with due care to put this fire out. The complaints in the two

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cases are substantially the same and in summary make the following allegations. The United States owned certain land in the State of Washington. It permitted a railroad to run trains over a right of way passing through this land. On August 6, 1951, sparks from a railroad engine ignited six fires on the right of way and adjoining land. These fires started in areas where highly inflammable dry grasses, brush, and other materials had been negligently allowed to accumulate by the Government. Shortly after the fires started United States Forest Service personnel appeared and took exclusive direction and control of all fire suppression activities. The Forest Service had entered into an agreement with the State of Washington to protect against and to suppress any fires in an area which included the public lands where these fires started and the petitioners' lands. Petitioners were aware of this contract and relied on the Forest Service to control and put out the fires involved in this case. But as a result of the Forest Service's improper firefighting these fires spread until they became a single fire covering 1,600 acres. By August 11, however, this blaze was under control and was substantially out except for certain spots that continued to burn and smolder until September 20. During the period between August 11 and September 20 there were men, equipment and a plentiful supply of water available to the Forest Service and if these resources had been properly utilized the fire could have been completely extinguished. For several days immediately preceding September 20 there was decreasing humidity accompanied by strong winds. But the Forest Service kept only a few men guarding the fire despite the fact that it was smoldering close to a tinder-dry accumulation of debris, down logs and dead undergrowth. On September 20 the winds blew sparks from the smoldering embers into these inflammable materials and the fire exploded spreading as much as twenty miles in one direction. As it fanned

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out it destroyed timber, buildings and other property some of which belonged to the petitioners.

The complaints allege that these consequences were caused by the Forest Service's negligence (1) in permitting inflammable materials to accumulate on Government land thereby allowing the fires to start and to spread; (2) in not preventing the railroad from starting the original spot fires; (3) in not properly suppressing the spot fires; and (4) in failing to quench and prevent the spread of the fire when it was under control in the 1,600 acre area. The district judge dismissed the complaints holding that they failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. He indicated that the facts alleged were sufficient to show actionable negligence on the part of a private person under the laws of Washington, but nevertheless felt compelled to dismiss the complaints because of the following statements by this Court in Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15, 43, 73 S.Ct. 956, 972, 97 L.Ed. 1427.

'As to the alleged failure in fighting the fire, we think this too without the (Tort Claims) Act. The Act did not create new causes of action where none existed before. '* * * Its effect is to waive immunity from recognized causes of action and was not to visit the Government with novel and unprecedented liabilities.' * * * It did not change the normal rule that an alleged failure or carelessness of public firemen does not create private actionable rights.'

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge's disposal of the complaints. 9 Cir., 225 F.2d 642 and 9 Cir., 225 F.2d 650. In agreeing that the United States could not be sued for any carelessness by the Forest Service in fighting the fire, it also relied exclusively on the Dalehite case. It rejected petitioners' other claims of negligence on...

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