United States v. Yellow Cab Co Capital Transit Co v. United States

Decision Date26 February 1951
Docket NumberNos. 218,204,s. 218
Citation71 S.Ct. 399,340 U.S. 543,95 L.Ed. 523
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Bernard G. Segal, Philadelphia, Pa., for Yellow Cab Co.

Mr. Justice BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the Federal Tort Claims Act1 empowers a United States District Court to require the United States to be impleaded as a third-party defendant and to answer the claim of a joint tort-feasor for contribution as if the United States were a private individual. For the reasons hereinafter stated, we hold that it does.

No. 218—Yellow Cab Case.

December 1, 1946, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, four passengers in a taxicab were injured by a collision between the cab and a United States mail truck. Claiming diversity of citizenship and charging negligence on the part of the cab driver, they sued his employer, the Yellow Cab Company, in the United States District Court. By leave of court, the company impleaded the United States as a third-party defendant and charged that the negligence of the mail truck driver made the United States liable for all or part of the passengers' claims against the company. The United States moved for its dismissal as a third-party defendant on the ground that the Federal Tort Claims Act does not authorize suits against it on derivative claims. The motions were denied. The court tried the cases together, without a jury, and rendered judgments against the company totaling $7,800, but in favor of the company against the United States for one-half of the several amounts awarded the passengers. Motions by the United States to set aside the judgments against it were denied and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed those denials. Howey v. Yellow Cab Co., 181 F.2d 967. On petition of the United States, we granted certiorari after the Capital Transit case, infra, had been decided the other way. 340 U.S. 809, 71 S.Ct. 63.

No. 204—Capital Transit Case.

August 4, 1947, in the District of Columbia, a passenger on a streetcar was injured by a collision between it and a jeep operated by a United States soldier acting within the scope of his duties. The passenger, charging negligence, sued the Capital Transit Company in the District Court for the District of Columbia. By leave of court, the company impleaded the United States as a third-party defendant, charging that the soldier's negligence was the sole or a contributing cause of the collision and asking judgment against the United States for a contributable portion of any sum which might be awarded against the company in favor of the passenger. In response to motions by the United States, the court entered a final judgment dismissing the third-party complaint on the ground that it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted against the United States. Stradley v. Capital Transit Co., D.C., 87 F.Supp. 94. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed. 87 U.S.App.D.C. 72, 183 F.2d 825. It reviewed the opinion in Howey v. Yellow Cab, supra, and disagreed with it. See also, Sappington v. Barrett, 86 U.S.App.D.C. 334, 182 F.2d 102. On petition of the company, we granted certiorari because of the conflict of decisions and the importance of the issue in the application of the Federal Tort Claims Act. 340 U.S. 808, 71 S.Ct. 61.

The Government Has Consented To Be Sued For Contribution.

In the Yellow Cab case the court below concluded that under the law of Pennsylvania a private individual would be liable to his joint tort-feasor for contribution,2 and that the United States, through the Federal Tort Claims, Act, had consented to be sued and would be liable, under the same circumstances, in the same manner and to the same extent. In the Capital Transit case, while the court below held that the United States could not be impleaded as a third-party defendant, it refrained from deciding whether, in a separate action, the company might enforce a right to contribution against the United States. Accordingly, although the court affirmed the dismissal of the third-party complaint against the United States, it did so without prejudice to the maintenance of a separate action for contribution by the joint tort-feasor. 87 U.S.App.D.C. at page 77, 183 F.2d at page 830.3

The Government now contends, in both cases, that it has not consented to be sued for contribution claimed by a joint tortfeasor, even in a separate action. We therefore discuss that issue first.

The Federal Tort Claims Act waives the Government's immunity from suit in sweeping language.4 It unquestionably waives it in favor of an injured person. It does the same for an insurer whose claim has been subrogated to his. United States v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 338 U.S. 366, 70 S.Ct. 207. The issue here is whether the Act also covers claims for contribution which would be due from the Government if the Government were a private individual.

On its face the Act amply covers such consent. Section 410(a) waives immunity from suit on—'any claim against the United States, for money only, accruing on and after January 1, 1945, on account of damage to or loss of property or on account of 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 for such damage, loss, injury, or death in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred. Subject to the provisions of this title, the United States shall be liable in respect of such claims to the same claimants, in the same manner, and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, except that the United States shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment, or for punitive damages. * * *' (Emphasis supplied.) 60 Stat. 844, 28 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) § 931(a).

The words 'any claim against the United States * * * on account of personal injury' (emphasis supplied) are broad words in common usage. They are not words of art. Section 421 lists 12 classes of claims to which the waiver shall not apply, but claims for contribution are not so listed.5

This Act does not subject the Government to a previously unrecognized type of obligation. Through hundreds of private relief acts, each Congress for many years has recognized the Government's obligation to pay claims on account of damage to or loss of property or on account of personal injury or death caused by negligent or wrongful acts of employees of the Government. This Act merely substitutes the District Courts for Congress as the agency to determine the validity and amount of the claims. It suggests no reason for reading into it fine distinctions between various types of such claims.

Despite the broad language of the Act, the Government has reviewed its legislative history in an attempt to restrict its scope. Most of that history relates to periods prior to the 2d Session of the 79th Congress at which the Act was passed. After more than 20 years of consideration, the subject was then presented to Congress in a new aspect.6 The bill became Title IV of the Legislative Reorganization Bill of 1946 at a moment when the over- whelming purpose of Congress was to make changes of procedure which would enable it to devote more time to major public issues.7 The reports at that session omitted previous discussions which tended to restrict the scope of the Tort Claims bill. The proceedings emphasized the benefits to be derived from relieving Congress of the pressure of private claims. Recognizing such a clearly defined breadth of purpose for the bill as a whole, and the general trend toward increasing the scope of the waiver by the United States of its sovereign immunity from suit, it is inconsistent to whittle it down by refinements.8

Of course there is no immunity from suit by the Government to collect claims for contribution due it from its joint tort-feasors. The Government should be able to enforce this right in a federal court not only in a separate action but by impleading the joint tort-feasor as a third-party defendant. See 3 Moore's Federal Practice (2d ed. 1948) 507, et seq. It is fair that this should work both ways. However, if the Act is interpreted as now urged by the Government, it would mean that if an injured party recovered judgment against the Government, the Government then could sue its joint tort-feasor for the latter's contributory share of the damages (local substantive law permitting). On the other hand, if the injured party recovered judgment against the private tort-feasor, it would mean that (despite local substantive law favoring contributory liability) that individual could not sue the Government for the latter's contributory share of the same damages. Presumably, the claimant would be relegated to a private bill for legislative relief. Such a result should not be read into this Act without a clearer statement of it than appears here.

We find, therefore, that the Government has consented to be sued for contribution under the circumstances of these cases—at least in a separate action. There remains the question of whether the Government may be impleaded as a third-party defendant. The Government Has Consented To Be Impleaded as a Third-Party Defendant in an Action for Contribution Due a Joint Tort-Feasor.

The Government contends that, even if the Federal Tort Claims Act carries the Government's consent to be sued in a separate action for contribution due a joint tort-feasor, it does not carry consent to be impleaded as a third-party defendant to meet such a claim.

We find nothing in the nature of the rights and obligations of joint tort-feasors to require...

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