Stencel Aero Engineering Corporation v. United States

Decision Date09 June 1977
Docket NumberNo. 76-321,76-321
Citation97 S.Ct. 2054,52 L.Ed.2d 665,431 U.S. 666
PartiesSTENCEL AERO ENGINEERING CORPORATION, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

A National Guard officer was permanently injured when the ejection system of his fighter aircraft malfunctioned during a midair emergency. Although he was awarded a lifetime pension under the Veterans' Benefits Act for the injury, he brought a damages suit against, inter alia, the United States and petitioner, which had manufactured the ejection system pursuant to Government specifications and with components furnished by the Government. The serviceman claimed that the ejection system had malfunctioned as a result of the defendants' individual and joint negligence. Petitioner cross-claimed against the United States, alleging that any malfunction in the system was due to faulty Government specifications and components. The District Court granted the Government's motions for summary judgment against the officer and for dismissal of petitioner's cross-claim, on the ground that Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, 71 S.Ct. 153, 95 L.Ed. 152 (wherein it was held that an on-duty serviceman injured because of Government officials' negligence may not recover against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act), barred both the officer's claim and petitioner's claim. Held: Petitioner's third-party indemnity claim cannot be maintained. Feres v. United States, supra. The right of a third party to recover in an indemnity action against the United States recognized in United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 340 U.S. 543, 71 S.Ct. 399, 95 L.Ed. 523, is limited by the rationale of Feres where the injured party is a serviceman. Pp. 669-674.

(a) The relationship between the Government and its suppliers of ordnance is as "distinctively federal in character" as the relationship between the Government and members of its Armed Forces, and hence, if as in Feres it makes no sense to permit the fortuity of the situs of the alleged negligence to affect the Government's liability to a serviceman for service-connected injuries, it makes equally little sense to permit that situs to affect such liability to a Government contractor for the identical injury. P. 672.

(b) The Veterans' Benefits Act provides an upper limit of liability for the Government as to service-connected injuries, and to permit petitioner's claim would circumvent such limitation. Pp. 672-673.

(c) Where the case concerns an injury to a serviceman while on duty, the adverse effect upon military discipline is identical whether the action is brought by the serviceman directly or by a third party, since in either case the issue would be the degree of the Government agents' fault, if any, and the effect upon the serviceman's safety, and the trial would involve second-guessing military orders. P. 673.

8th Cir., 536 F.2d 765, affirmed.

Thomas J. Whalen, New York City, for petitioner.

Thomas S. Martin, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

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

We granted certiorari in this case to decide whether the United States is liable under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2674, to indemnify a third party for damages paid by it to a member of the Armed Forces injured in the course of military service.

(1)

On June 9, 1973, Captain John Donham was permanently injured when the egress life-support system of his F-100 fighter aircraft malfunctioned during a midair emergency.1 Petitioner, Stencel Aero Engineering Corp., manufactured the ejection system pursuant to the specifications of, and by use of certain components provided by, the United States.2 Pursu- ant to the Veterans' Benefits Act, 38 U.S.C. § 321 et seq., made applicable to National Guardsmen by 32 U.S.C. § 318, Captain Donham was awarded a lifetime pension of approximately $1,500 per month. He nonetheless brought suit for the injury in the Eastern District of Missouri claiming damages of $2,500,000. Named as defendants, inter alia, were the United States and Stencel. Donham alleged that the emergency eject system malfunctioned as a result of "the negligence and carelessness of the defendants individually and jointly."

Stencel then cross-claimed against the United States for indemnity, charging that any malfunction in the egress life-support system used by Donham was due to faulty specifications, requirements, and components provided by the United States or other persons under contract with the United States. The cross-claim further charged that the malfunctioning system had been in the exclusive custody and control of the United States since the time of its manufacture. Stencel therefore claimed that, insofar as it was negligent at all, its negligence was passive, while the negligence of the United States was active. Accordingly it prayed for indemnity as to any sums it would be required to pay to Captain Donham.3

The United States moved for summary judgment against Donham, contending that he could not recover under the Tort Claims Act against the Government for injuries sustained incident to military service. Feres v. United States, 340 U.S 135, 71 S.Ct. 153, 95 L.Ed. 152 (1950). The United States further moved for dismissal of Stencel's cross-claim, asserting that Feres also bars an indemnity action by a third party for monies paid to military personnel who could not recover directly from the United States.

The District Court granted the Government's motions, holding that Feres protected the United States both from the claim of the serviceman and that of the third party.4 Both claims were therefore dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Stencel appealed this ruling to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit 5 and that court affirmed. 536 F.2d 765. We granted certiorari.6 429 U.S. 958, 97 S.Ct. 380, 50 L.Ed.2d 325.

(2)

In Feres v. United States, supra, the Court held that an on-duty serviceman who is injured due to the negligence of Government officials may not recover against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act. During the same Term, in a case involving injuries to private parties, the Court also held that the Act permits impleading the Government as a third-party defendant, under a theory of indemnity or contribution, if the original defendant claims that the United States was wholly or partially responsible for the plaintiff's injury. United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 340 U.S. 543, 71 S.Ct. 399, 95 L.Ed 523 (1951). In this case we must resolve the tension between Feres and Yellow Cab when a member of the Armed Services brings a tort action against a private defendant and the latter seeks indemnity from the United States under the Tort Claims Act, claiming that Government officials were primarily responsible for the injuries.

Petitioner argues that "(t)he Federal Tort Claims Act waives the Government's immunity from suit in sweeping language." United States v. Yellow Cab Co., supra, at 547, 71 S.Ct. at 402. Petitioner therefore contends that, unless its claim falls within one of the express exceptions to the Act, the Court should give effect to the congressional policy underlying the Act, which is to hold the United States liable under state-law principles to the same extent as a similarly situated private individual. However, the principles of Yellow Cab here come into conflict with the equally well established doctrine of Feres v. United States. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the rationale of Feres to determine to what extent, if any, allowance of petitioner's claim would circumvent the purposes of the Act as there construed by the Court.

Feres was an action by the executrix of a serviceman who had been killed when the barracks in which he was sleeping caught fire. The plaintiff claimed that the United States had been negligent in quartering the decedent in barracks it knew to be unsafe due to a defective heating plant.7 While recognizing the broad congressional purpose in passing the Act, the Court noted that the relationship between a sovereign and the members of its Armed Forces is unlike any relationship between private individuals. 340 U.S., at 141-142, 71 S.Ct. at 156-157. There is thus at least a surface anomaly in applying the mandate of the Act that "(t)he United States shall be liable . . . in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances . . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 2674. Noting that the effect of the Act was "to waive immunity from recognized causes of action and . . . not to visit the Government with novel and unprecedented liabilities," 340 U.S., at 142, 71 S.Ct., at 157, the Court concluded:

"(T)he Government is not liable under the Federal Tort Claims Act for injuries to servicemen where the injuries arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service. Without exception, the relationship of military personnel to the Government has been governed exclusively by federal law. We do not think that Congress, in drafting this Act, created a new cause of action dependent on local law for service-connected injuries or death due to negligence. We cannot impute to Congress such a radical departure from established law in the absence of express congressional command." Id., at 146, 71 S.Ct., at 159.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court considered two factors: First, the relationship between the Government and members of its Armed Forces is " 'distinctively federal in character,' " id., at 143, 71 S.Ct., at 158, citing United States v. Standard Oil Co., 332 U.S. 301, 67 S.Ct. 1604, 91 L.Ed. 2067 (1947); it would make little sense to have the Government's liability to members of the Armed Services dependent on the fortuity of where the soldier happened to be stationed at the time of the injury. Second, the Veterans' Benefits Act establishes, as a substitute for tort liability, a statutory "no fault" compensation...

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