UNITED STATES V. JOHNSON, 481 U. S. 681 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Johnson, 481 U.S. 681 (1987)

United States v. Johnson

No. 85-2039

Argued February 24, 1987

Decided May 18, 1987

481 U.S. 681


Under Feres v. United States, 340 U. S. 135, the Government has no Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) liability for injuries to members of the military service arising out of or in the course of activity incident to service. Respondent's husband, a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard, was killed when his helicopter crashed during a rescue mission. Shortly before the crash, air traffic controllers from the Federal Aviation Administration, a civilian agency of the Federal Government, had assumed positive radar control over the helicopter. After receiving veterans' benefits for her husband's death, respondent filed an FTCA action seeking damages from the Government on the ground that the controllers' negligence had caused the crash. The Federal District Court dismissed the complaint relying exclusively on Feres. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, distinguishing Feres from cases such as the present in which negligence is alleged on the part of a Government employee who is not a member of the military. Finding the effect of a suit on military discipline to be the Feres doctrine's primary justification, the court ruled that Feres did not bar respondent's suit, since there was no indication that the conduct or decisions of military personnel would be subjected to scrutiny if the case proceeded to trial.

Held: The Feres doctrine bars an FTCA action on behalf of a service member killed during an activity incident to service, even if the alleged negligence is by civilian employees of the Federal Government. Pp. 481 U. S. 686-692.

(a) This Court and the lower federal courts have consistently applied the Feres doctrine since its inception, and have never suggested that the military status of the alleged tortfeasor is crucial. Nor has Congress seen fit to change the Feres standard in the more than 35 years since it was articulated. Pp. 481 U. S. 686-688.

(b) The three broad rationales underlying Feres refute the critical significance ascribed to the status of the alleged tortfeasor by the Court of Appeals. First, the distinctively federal character of the relationship between the Government and Armed Forces personnel necessitates a federal remedy that provides simple, certain, and uniform compensation, unaffected by the fortuity of the situs of the alleged negligence. Second, the statutory veterans' disability and death benefits system

Page 481 U. S. 682

provides the sole remedy for service-connected injuries. Third, even if military negligence is not specifically alleged in a service member's FTCA suit, military discipline may be impermissibly affected by the suit, since the judgments and decisions underlying the military mission are necessarily implicated, and the duty and loyalty that service members owe to their services and the country may be undermined. Pp. 481 U. S. 688-691.

(c) Respondent's husband's death resulted from the rescue mission, a primary duty of the Coast Guard, and the mission was an activity incident to his service. Respondent received statutory veterans' benefits on behalf of her husband's death. Because respondent's husband was acting pursuant to standard Coast Guard Operating Procedures, the potential that this suit could implicate military discipline is substantial. Thus, this case falls within the heart of the Feres doctrine. Pp. 481 U. S. 691-692.

779 F.2d 1492, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 481 U. S. 692.

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