United States v. Taylor

Citation236 F.2d 649
Decision Date14 September 1956
Docket NumberNo. 12674,12675.,12674
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellant, v. Freeman TAYLOR, Appellee. UNITED STATES of America, Appellant, v. Homer L. DEMOSS, Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

Richard M. Marcus, Washington, D. C. (Warren E. Burger, Asst. Atty Gen., Paul A. Sweeney, Atty., Dept. of Justice, Washington, D. C., Millsaps Fitzhugh, Memphis, Tenn., on the brief), for appellant.

W. H. Lassiter, Huntingdon, Tenn. (R. M. Murray, Gordon, Browning, Huntingdon, Tenn., on the brief), for appellants.

Before MARTIN, MILLER and STEWART, Circuit Judges.

STEWART, Circuit Judge.

On February 26, 1954, a C-119 Air Force plane took off from Lawson Air Force Base at Columbus, Georgia, on what was to be a six hour training flight. Aboard were an Air Force lieutenant in command as pilot, and a crew consisting of a co-pilot and two flight engineers. The pilot and crew had been thoroughly instructed as to the specific training exercises which were to be performed: short field landings and take-offs at Lawson, instrument approaches eighty-two miles away at Maxwell Air Force Base, near Montgomery, Alabama, and visual approaches at Columbus, Georgia. The entire flight was to be confined to the "local flying area," an area precisely delimited by Air Force regulations, with an average radius from Lawson Air Force Base of about ninety miles.

After only one practice landing at Lawson, however, the plane left the "local flying area" and flew more than three hundred miles to Huntingdon, Tennessee, the pilot's home town. Upon arriving over Huntingdon the plane made two passes over the courthouse at a very low altitude and at an accelerated speed. These maneuvers violated established regulations of the Air Force with which the pilot was thoroughly familiar. Any such maneuvers were moreover extraordinarily dangerous in this "flying boxcar," a fact which the pilot also had reason to know. On the second pass the plane disintegrated and crashed, and all aboard were killed. Burning gasoline from the plane injured the appellees who were working in a nearby field.

To recover for their injuries they brought the present suits against the United States, relying upon the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1346(b) and 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 2671 et seq. The district judge, sitting without a jury, entered judgments in their favor, finding as a fact that the pilot and crew of the airplane "were acting in the line of duty and within the general scope of their office and employment as officers and enlisted men of the United States Air Force." From those judgments the government has appealed.

At the outset the appellant contends that the conduct of the Air Force personnel which caused the appellees' injuries amounted to an assault and battery, and that the district court was therefore without jurisdiction to award judgment, the United States having expressly withheld its consent to be sued for that type of tortious conduct on the part of its employees.1 Stepp v. United States, 4 Cir., 1953, 207 F.2d 909; Moos v. United States, 8 Cir., 1955, 225 F.2d 705.

This issue was not raised in the district court. A jurisdictional question must be considered whenever it appears, however, and it seems obvious that the exceptions to Federal Tort Claims Act liability contained in 28 U.S.C.A. § 2680 are jurisdictional. See Stepp v. United States and Moos v. United States cited above. Cf. Dalehite v. United States, 1953, 346 U.S. 15, 73 S.Ct. 956, 97 L.Ed. 1427; but see Stewart v. United States, 7 Cir., 1952, 199 F.2d 517. Because this issue is raised so belatedly, however, we are without benefit of findings of fact by the district court directly responsive to the question of whether the operation of the plane over Huntingdon constituted an assault. Were there any substantial dispute in the evidence as to what happened when the plane reached Huntingdon, it might therefore be necessary to remand the case to the district court for specific findings upon this issue. Marlborough Corporation v. United States, 9 Cir., 1949, 172 F.2d 787; Kelley v. Everglades Drainage District, 1943, 319 U.S. 415, 63 S.Ct. 1141, 87 L.Ed. 1485.

There is, however, no such dispute. The evidence is substantially uniform that both passes made by the plane were at nearly level flight, at a very low altitude above the courthouse. No witness stated that he took shelter or saw anyone else do so. No witness stated that he was in fear for his personal safety. Several in fact stated that they went outside or to a window to get a better view. It conceivably could constitute an assault for the pilot of an airplane to dive steeply toward persons on the ground causing them to feel they were in immediate danger of being hit, but the record here warrants no such finding, nor any other finding that would establish even a tenuous case of assault and battery. See Restatement, Torts, Section 13. A remand for specific findings on this issue would therefore be pointless. Cf. Frieze v. West American Ins. Co., 8 Cir., 1951, 190 F.2d 381. We conclude that the district court had jurisdiction to entertain these actions under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The appellees contend that, irrespective of the principles of respondeat superior, the government as the owner of the aircraft involved is absolutely liable for their injuries, upon the basis of a Tennessee statute so providing, as well as under the Tennessee common law imposing liability upon the owners of dangerous instrumentalities. The district court did not reach this contention, in view of its finding that the members of the crew of the airplane were in fact acting within the scope of their employment.

The statute upon which the appellees rely is § 42-105 Tennessee Code Annotated, which provides in part as follows: "The owner of every aircraft which is operated over the lands or waters of this state is absolutely liable for injuries to persons or property on the land or water beneath, caused by the ascent, descent, or flight of the aircraft, or the dropping or falling of any object therefrom, whether such owner was negligent or not * * *." In addition, appellees call our attention to Tennessee decisions which they say state the rule in Tennessee that the owner of a dangerous instrumentality is liable for the conduct of his agent or servant even when not acting within the scope of his employment. Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad Co. v. Starnes, 1870, 56 Tenn. 52; see Hunt-Berlin Coal Co. v. Paton, 1918, 139 Tenn. 611, 619, 202 S.W. 935, 937; Life & Cas. Ins. Co. of Tennessee v. Russell, 1932, 164 Tenn. 586, 589, 51 S.W.2d 491, 492.

Assuming that a private individual in the government's position would be absolutely liable to the appellees under this statutory and case law of Tennessee, it does not follow that the United States is therefore liable under the provisions of the Federal Tort Claims Act. The explicit terms of 28 U.S.C.A. § 1346(b) limit the waiver of sovereign immunity to cases where the damages which have been sustained were "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." This statutory language makes clear that the United States has consented to be sued only where a private person would be liable under the respondeat superior doctrine. Reference must be had to the law of the state for the applicable law as to liability under that doctrine, but state law imposing liability regardless of whether the agent or servant was acting within the scope of his employment, or absolute liability under any circumstances, is inapplicable and irrelevant. The statute itself leaves little room for question on this issue, and any doubt that may have remained has been dispelled by decisions of the courts. Dalehite v. United States, 1953, 346 U.S. 15, 44-45, 73 S. Ct. 956, 97 L.Ed. 1427; United States v. Campbell, 5 Cir., 1949, 172 F.2d 500; Hubsch v. United States, 5 Cir., 1949, 174 F.2d 7; United States v. Eleazer, 4 Cir., 1949, 177 F.2d 914; Heale v. United States, 3 Cir., 1953, 207 F.2d 414; Rayonier Incorporated v. United States, 9 Cir., 1955, 225 F.2d 642.

We turn then to the controlling issue. Were the Air Force personnel who caused the appellees' injuries acting within the scope of their employment at the time of their negligent conduct?2

In the case of a member of the military or naval forces of the United States, it is provided by statute that "`Acting within the scope of his office or employment'" means "acting in line of duty." 28 U.S.C.A. § 2671. It has been conclusively settled, however, as the district court correctly held, that although "line of duty" may have a different meaning in connection with benefit claims by members of the Armed Forces or their dependents, the standard of governmental liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act is with respect to both military and civilian employees that imposed by the respondeat superior doctrine of the state.3 Williams v. United States, 1955, 350 U.S. 857, 76 S.Ct. 100, reversing, 9 Cir., 1954, 215 F.2d 800; United States v. Campbell, 5 Cir., 1949, 172 F.2d 500; United States v. Eleazer, 4 Cir., 1949, 177 F.2d 914.

The district court found that the members of the plane crew were acting within the general scope of their employment in that they were operating the plane "in furtherance of the training mission of the United States Air Force and under conditions resembling those which normally attended its use in connection with flying operations of the United States Air Force." With that we are unable to agree.

The fact that the Air Force personnel were acting in disobedience of their orders would not alone exculpate the government from liability under the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
36 cases
  • Blessing v. United States, Civ. A. No. 76-180 and 76-189.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • April 19, 1978
    ...v. United States, 338 F.2d 416 (2d Cir. 1964), cert. denied, 380 U.S. 957, 85 S.Ct. 1069, 13 L.Ed.2d 974 (1965); United States v. Taylor, 236 F.2d 649 (6th Cir. 1956), cert. dismissed, 355 U.S. 801, 78 S.Ct. 6, 2 L.Ed.2d 19 (1957); McGillic v. United States, 153 F.Supp. 565 (D.N.D.1957); Un......
  • McGarry v. United States, Civ. No. LV-1504
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Nevada
    • October 30, 1973
    ...Corp. v. United States, 253 F.2d 716 (9th Cir. 1957); Strangi v. United States, 211 F.2d 305 (5th Cir. 1954); United States v. Taylor, 236 F.2d 649 (6th Cir. 1956); Wright v. United States, 404 F.2d 244 (7th Cir. 1968); and Huffmaster v. United States, 186 F.Supp. 120 (D.C.Cal.1960). Simila......
  • Carroll v. Trump
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • October 26, 2020
    ...personnel are acting within the line of duty is determined by applicable state rules of respondeat superior."); United States v. Taylor , 236 F.2d 649, 653 (6th Cir. 1956) ("[T]he standard of governmental liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act is with respect to both military and civil......
  • Dyer v. U.S., 3:99-CV-95.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Eastern District of Tennessee
    • May 19, 2000
    ...if a private person, would be liable to the claimant under the law of the State where the accident occurred. Cf. United States v. Taylor, 236 F.2d 649 (6th Cir. 1956). In their Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs allege the Government was engaged in an "ultrahazardous activity," including ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT