Richards v. United States, No. 59

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWARREN
Citation82 S.Ct. 585,7 L.Ed.2d 492,369 U.S. 1
Docket NumberNo. 59
Decision Date26 February 1962
PartiesSuzanne Thomas RICHARDS, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES of America et al

369 U.S. 1
82 S.Ct. 585
7 L.Ed.2d 492
Suzanne Thomas RICHARDS, etc., et al., Petitioners,

v.

UNITED STATES of America et al.

No. 59.
Argued Nov. 15, 1961.
Decided Feb. 26, 1962.

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Truman B. Rucker, Tulsa, Okl., for petitioners.

Richard J. Medalie, Washington, D.C., for respondent, the United States.

W. B. Patterson, Dallas, Tex., for respondent, American Airlines, Inc.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question to be decided in this case is what law a Federal District Court should apply in an action brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act1 where an act of negligence occurs in one State and results in an injury and death in another State. The basic provision of the Tort Claims Act states that the Government shall be liable for tortious conduct committed by its employees acting within the scope of their employment 'under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the

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law of the place where the act or omission occurred.'2 The parties urge that the alternatives in selecting the law to determine liability under this statute are: (1) the internal law of the place where the negligence occurred, or (2) the whole law (including choice-of-law rules) of the place where the negligence occurred, or (3) the internal law of the place where the operative effect of the negligence took place.

Although the particular facts of this case are relatively unimportant in deciding the question before us, a brief recitation of them is necessary to set the context for our decision. The petitioners are the personal representatives of passengers killed when an airplane, owned by the respondent American Airlines, crashed in Missouri while en route from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to New York City. Suit was brought by the petitioners against the United States in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, on the theory that the Government, through the Civil Aviation Agency, had 'negligently failed to enforce the terms of the Civil Aeronautics Act and the regulations thereunder which prohibited the practices then being used by American Airlines, Inc., in the overhaul depot of Tulsa, Oklahoma.'3 The petitioners in each case either had already received a $15,000 settlement from the Airlines, the maximum amount recoverable under the Missouri Wrongful Death Act,4 amount had been tendered that amount. They sought additional amounts from the United States under the Oklahoma Wrongful

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Death Act5 which contains no limitation on the amount a single person may recover from a tortfeasor. The Government filed a third-party complaint against American Airlines, seeking reimbursement for any amount that the petitioners might recover against the United States.

After a pretrial hearing, the District Court ruled that the complaints failed to state claims upon which relief could be granted under the Oklahoma Act since that statute could not be applied extraterritorially 'where an act or omission occurring in Oklahoma results in injury and death in the State of Missouri.' 6 Alternatively, the court noted that if Oklahoma law was applicable under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 'then the general law of Oklahoma, including its conflicts of law rule, is applicable thereunder,' thus precluding further recovery since the Oklahoma conflicts rule would refer the court to the law of Missouri, the place where the negligence had its operative effect.7 In dismissing the petitioners' complaints against the United States, the court found it unnecessary to pass upon the third-party complaint asserted by the Government against American. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the judgment by a divided vote,8 the majority agreeing with the lower court that the complaints failed to state a cause of action upon which relief could be based under either the Oklahoma or the Missouri Wrongful Death Act. In dissent, the chief judge, believing that Congress intended the internal law of the place where the act or omission occurred to control the rights and liabilities of the parties, stated that he thought it was error to apply the Oklahoma

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conflict-of-laws rule, and would have remanded the case for a determination of liability under the Oklahoma Act.

That the question confronting us is an important one and of a recurring nature is made apparent by the conflicting views expressed in its solution by the lower federal courts. In the five circuits in which it has arisen, resolution of the question has been reached by adoption of one or another of the alternatives urged upon us by the parties to this suit. The petitioners' contention, that the reference in Section 1346(b) to the 'place where the act or omission occurred' directs application of only the internal law of that State—here, Oklahoma—is supported by the Seventh Circuit's decision in Voytas v. United States, 256 F.2d 786, and by the District of Columbia Circuit in Eastern Air Lines v. Union Trust Co., 95 U.S.App.D.C. 189, 221 F.2d 62, as well as by the dissenting judge of the Tenth Circuit in the instant case. The Government's interpretation of the Act, that in order also to give effect to Section 2674,9 providing that the United States shall be liable in the same manner as a private individual, a court must refer to the whole law of the State where the act or omission occurred, was adhered to by the Second Circuit in Landon v. United States, 197 F.2d 128, as well as by the Tenth Circuit in the case at bar. American Airlines, although willing to abide by the interpretation advanced by the Government, suggests, as an alternative, that the internal law of the place where the negligence had its operative effect—here, Missouri—should control. This construction of the Act is supported by the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. Marshall, 230 F.2d 183, and by the dissenting opinion in the Union Trust case, supra. It was to resolve the three-fold conflict and to enunciate a rule that can be applied uniformly in Tort Claims Act cases that we granted certiorari. 366 U.S. 916, 81 S.Ct. 1093, 6 L.Ed.2d 240.

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I.

The principal provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act, originally enacted as Title IV of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946,10 is Section 1346(b), reading in pertinent part:

'* * * the district courts * * * shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages * * * for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, 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.'

Section 2674, also relevant to our decision, provides:

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

The Tort Claims Act was designed primarily to remove the sovereign immunity of the United States from suits in tort and, with certain specific exceptions, to render the Government liable in tort as a private individual would be under like circumstances.11 It is evident that the Act was not patterned to operate with complete independence

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from the principles of law developed in the common law and refined by statute and judicial decision in the various States. Rather, it was designed to build upon the legal relationships formulated and characterized by the States, and, to that extent, the statutory scheme is exemplary of the generally interstitial character of federal law. If Congress had meant to alter or supplant the legal relationships developed by the States, it could specifically have done so to further the limited objectives of the Tort Claims Act. That is, notwithstanding the generally interstitial character of the law, Congress, in waiving the immunity of the Government for tortious conduct of its employees, could have imposed restrictions and conditions on the extent and substance of its liability.12 We must determine whether, and to what extent, Congress exercised this power in selecting a rule for the choice of laws to be applied in suits brought under the Act. And, because the issue of the applicable law is controlled by a formal expression of the will of Congress, we need not pause to consider the question whether the conflict-of-laws rule applied in suits where federal jurisdiction rests upon diversity of citizenship shall be extended to a case such as this, in which jurisdiction is based upon a federal statute.13 In addition, and even though Congress has left to judicial implication the task of giving content to its will in selecting the controlling law, because of the formal expression found in the Act itself, we are presented with a situation wholly distinguishable from those cases in which our initial inquiry has been whether the appropriate rule should be the simple adoption of state

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law.14 Here, we must decide, first, to which State the words 'where the act or omission occurred' direct us, and, second, whether application of the internal law or the whole law of that State would be most consistent with the legislative purpose in enacting the Tort Claims Act.

II.

The legislative history of the Act, although generally extensive,15 is not, except in a negative way, helpful in solving the problem of the law to be applied in a multistate tort action such as is presented by the facts of this case. It has been repeatedly observed that Congress did not consider choice-of-law problems during the long period that the legislation was being prepared for enactment.16 The concern of Congress, as illustrated...

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1434 practice notes
  • Pearson v. Northeast Airlines, Inc., No. 297
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • July 11, 1962
    ...a rule of local law to govern an incident of a cause of action based upon the law of a foreign state. See Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 12 n. 26, 82 S.Ct. 585, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962). In Grant v. McAuliffe, 41 Cal.2d 859, 264 P.2d 944, 42 A.L.R.2d 1162 (1953), Judge Traynor, speaking......
  • Concepcion v. Morton, No. CIV.A.98-3681(MLC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • December 21, 2000
    ...931 (1979), and we assume `that the legislative purpose is expressed by the ordinary meaning of the words used,' Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9, 82 S.Ct. 585, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962)." American Tobacco Co. v. Patterson, 456 U.S. 63, 68, 102 S.Ct. 1534, 71 L.Ed.2d 748 (1982); accord G......
  • Chavez v. United States, CIV 21-0872-JB-SCY
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • October 25, 2021
    ...exceptions, to render the Government liable in tort as a private individual would be under like circumstances.” Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 6 (1962). The FTCA leaves untouched the states' laws that might apply to the United States once Congress removes that immunity. The Supreme ......
  • Amoco Production Company v. Village of Gambell, Alaska Hodel v. Village of Gambell, Nos. 85-1239 and 85-1406
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 24, 1987
    ...the words used.' " United States v. Locke, 471 U.S. 84, 95, 105 S.Ct. 1785, 1793, 85 L.Ed.2d 64 (1985) (quoting Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9, 82 S.Ct. 585, 590, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962)). This is not that "exceptional case" where acceptance of the plain meaning of a word would "thwa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1436 cases
  • Pearson v. Northeast Airlines, Inc., No. 297
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • July 11, 1962
    ...a rule of local law to govern an incident of a cause of action based upon the law of a foreign state. See Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 12 n. 26, 82 S.Ct. 585, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962). In Grant v. McAuliffe, 41 Cal.2d 859, 264 P.2d 944, 42 A.L.R.2d 1162 (1953), Judge Traynor, speaking......
  • Concepcion v. Morton, No. CIV.A.98-3681(MLC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • December 21, 2000
    ...931 (1979), and we assume `that the legislative purpose is expressed by the ordinary meaning of the words used,' Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9, 82 S.Ct. 585, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962)." American Tobacco Co. v. Patterson, 456 U.S. 63, 68, 102 S.Ct. 1534, 71 L.Ed.2d 748 (1982); accord G......
  • Chavez v. United States, CIV 21-0872-JB-SCY
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • October 25, 2021
    ...exceptions, to render the Government liable in tort as a private individual would be under like circumstances.” Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 6 (1962). The FTCA leaves untouched the states' laws that might apply to the United States once Congress removes that immunity. The Supreme ......
  • Amoco Production Company v. Village of Gambell, Alaska Hodel v. Village of Gambell, Nos. 85-1239 and 85-1406
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • March 24, 1987
    ...the words used.' " United States v. Locke, 471 U.S. 84, 95, 105 S.Ct. 1785, 1793, 85 L.Ed.2d 64 (1985) (quoting Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9, 82 S.Ct. 585, 590, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962)). This is not that "exceptional case" where acceptance of the plain meaning of a word would "thwa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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