Rayonier Incorporated v. United States

Decision Date14 October 1955
Docket NumberNo. 14329.,14329.
Citation225 F.2d 642
PartiesRAYONIER INCORPORATED, a Corporation, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Holman, Mickelwait, Marion, Black & Perkins, Lucien F. Marion, Burroughs B. Anderson, Seattle, Wash., for appellant.

Warren E. Burger, Asst. Atty. Gen., Paul A. Sweeney, Alan S. Rosenthal, Samuel D. Slade, Sondra K. Slade, Attys., Department of Justice, Washington, D. C., Charles P. Moriarty, U. S. Atty., F. N. Cushman, Asst. U. S. Atty., Seattle, Wash., for appellee.

Before BONE, ORR and HASTIE, Circuit Judges.

ORR, Circuit Judge.

Appellant filed an original and amended complaint in the trial court seeking to recover damages against the United States. The amended complaint, says appellant, alleges a cause of action within the area in which the United States has waived its sovereign immunity from suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1346, 2671-2680. The damages claimed are for property losses.

On motion the trial court dismissed the action on the ground that the complaint failed to state a claim against the United States on which relief can be granted.

We summarize the pertinent allegations of the amended complaint. Appellee, hereafter Government, is and was at all material times the owner of vast timber forests situate on the Olympic Peninsula of the State of Washington. These forests are administered and patrolled by the Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture. The Port Angeles Western Railroad is the owner of various railroad rights of way across the public lands, which rights of way are subject to a right of "control" and "free access" held by the United States. Appellant, hereafter Rayonier, is a Delaware corporation with extensive timberland holdings in the State of Washington, principally on the Olympic Peninsula.

On August 6, 1951, sparks emitted by a passing locomotive ignited a fire along the railroad's right of way. The Chief United States Forest Ranger was immediately notified and assumed control of the fire fighting activities, which control he continued to exercise during the entire period of fire fighting. The fire spread first to sixty acres of public land, where it was confined until August 7th. It then flared up and spread to a 1600-acre tract, not alleged to be government owned. By August 11th the fire was "contained and controlled". It smouldered in the 1600-acre tract until September 20th. On September 20th it flared up again, escaped from the 1600-acre area and caused the alleged injuries to Rayonier's land.

It is further alleged that the Chief Forest Ranger committed numerous wrongful acts and omissions in the course of fighting the fire on the 1600-acre tract. The amended complaint avers that he failed to employ sufficient men and equipment although there was an ample supply available, and that the proper utilization of such available man power and material would have resulted in the extinguishment of the fire.

In addition, Rayonier seeks to predicate liability on the Government's alleged negligent failure to maintain the roadbed of the railroad in safe condition, its failure to maintain adjoining public lands in safe condition, its failure to perform the fire fighting duties required of a landowner, and its failure to fight the fire according to the duty of care which the law requires of a volunteer.

The crux of our inquiry is whether the allegations of the amended complaint brings the case within the ambit of the Tort Claims Act. The trial court in deciding that they do not relied upon the holding in the case of Dalehite v. United States, 1953, 346 U.S. 15, 73 S. Ct. 956, 97 L.Ed. 1427. While much is alleged as to the origin of the fire, negligence of the United States in failing to keep the railroad right of way clear of inflammable matter as well as negligence in failing to control the early spread of the fire, we read the amended complaint in its entirety as picturing a situation wherein the operation occurring after the fire had spread to the 1600-acre plot is determinative of the liability of the Government, if any. The fire, after reaching the 1600-acre tract, smouldered for more than a month, flared up again and reached appellant's property. In our opinion it was this recurrence of fire on the 1600-acre tract which was the sole proximate cause of the injury to appellant's property and that risks, if any, created by the acts or omissions of agencies of the Government prior to the containment of the fire in the 1600-acre area had terminated.1 Here the complaint alleges that the fire was "contained and controlled." It is alleged that men, equipment and water, for more than a month, were available to extinguish it. Failure to extinguish the fire is alleged to be due to the negligent refusal to employ the available resources and to use ordinary judgment. Paragraph XXXII of the complaint states that:

"The fire and all burning material within the 1600-acre area and especially in the westerly portion of said area and in the landing described in paragraph XXI above could have been completely extinguished between the dates of August 11 and September 19, 1951 and the fire which broke loose on September 20, 1951, could have been avoided, by the use and employment of more men, tools, equipment, water and supplies, and such men, tools, equipment, water and supplies were available and could have been so used and employed by the District Ranger Floe and his subordinates."

On these facts, liability may not be predicated on conduct occurring before the spread of the fire to the 1600-acre tract.

Having reached the conclusion that failure to completely extinguish the fire after it had been contained within the 1600-acre tract for approximately six weeks was the sole proximate cause of the injuries to appellant's property, we now give attention to the allegation that the failure to completely extinguish and contain the fire within said tract was due to the negligence of the fire fighters. These men were Forest Service employees and functioning as public firemen. Under the circumstances was their employment such as to render the Government liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual would be and thus within the provision of the Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2674?

In the Dalehite case, supra 346 U.S. 15, 73 S.Ct. 972, the Supreme Court construed the act with reference to an analogous fact situation. There suit was brought to recover damages for negligence on the part of government officials in the manufacture and shipment of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The fertilizer exploded while stored aboard ship in the harbor of Texas City, Texas. The Coast Guard attempted to put out the fire but failed. It was charged with taking inadequate measures to control the blaze. The Supreme Court denied relief. We set forth a portion of the opinion of the Supreme Court:

"As to the alleged failure in fighting the fire, we think this too without the Act. The Act did not create new causes of action where none existed before.
"`* * * the liability assumed by the Government here is that created by "all the circumstances," not that which a few of the circumstances might create. We find no parallel liability before, and we think no new one has been created by, this Act. Its effect is to waive immunity from recognized causes of action and was not to visit the Government with novel and unprecedented liabilities.\' Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, 142, 71 S.Ct. 153, 157, 95 L.Ed. 152.
"It did not change the normal rule that an alleged failure or carelessness of public firemen does not create private actionable rights. Our analysis of the question is determined by what was said in the Feres case. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346 and 2674, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1346, 2674. The Act, as was there stated, limited United States liability to `the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances\'. 28 U.S.C. § 2674, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2674. Here, as there, there is no analogous liability; in fact, if anything is doctrinally sanctified in the law of torts it is the immunity of communities and other public bodies for injuries due to fighting fire. This case, then, is much stronger than Feres. We pointed out only one state decision which denied government liability for injuries incident to service to one in the state militia. That cities, by maintaining fire-fighting organizations, assume no liability for personal injuries resulting from their lapses is much more securely entrenched. The Act, since it relates to claims to which there is no analogy in general tort law, did not adopt a different rule. See Steitz v. City of Beacon, 295 N.Y. 51, 64 N.E.2d 704, 163 A.L. R. 342. To impose liability for the alleged nonfeasance of the Coast Guard would be like holding the United States liable in tort for failure to impose a quarantine for, let us say, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease."

The control of conflagrations on forest lands is as much a public function as the fighting of shipboard fires or of pestilence in time of epidemics. We conclude that the Forest Rangers in fighting the fire acted in the capacity of public firemen. The Forest Service engages in extensive fire protection programs. It assists state foresters by subsidies and consultation; it conducts nationwide fire prevention campaigns; it carries on extensive research into techniques and devices for fire prevention and suppression. The service has entered into several agreements similar to the one alleged to be in force here whereby it assumes the state function of suppressing fires on all lands within a particular area, whether publicly or privately owned. We see no distinction between nonliability of the United States for negligence of the Coast Guard in fighting fires and analogous negligent conduct by the Forest Service. In our opinion the Dalehite case...

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