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U.S. Supreme Court

Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988)

Boyle v. United Technologies Corp.

No. 86-492

Argued October 13, 1987

Reargued April 27, 1988

Decided June 27, 1988

487 U.S. 500


David A. Boyle, a United States Marine helicopter copilot, drowned when his helicopter crashed off the Virginia coast. Petitioner, the personal representative of the heirs and estate of Boyle, brought this diversity action in Federal District Court against the Sikorsky Division of respondent corporation (Sikorsky), alleging, inter alia, under Virginia tort law, that Sikorsky had defectively designed the helicopter's copilot emergency escape-hatch system. The jury returned a general verdict for petitioner, and the court denied Sikorsky's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with directions that judgment be entered for Sikorsky. It found that, as a matter of federal law, Sikorsky could not be held liable for the allegedly defective design because Sikorsky satisfied the requirements of the "military contractor defense."


1. There is no merit to petitioner's contention that, in the absence of federal legislation specifically immunizing Government contractors, federal law cannot shield contractors from liability for design defects in military equipment. In a few areas involving "uniquely federal interests," state law is preempted and replaced, where necessary, by federal law of a content prescribed (absent explicit statutory directive) by the courts. The procurement of equipment by the United States is an area of uniquely federal interest. A dispute such as the present one, even though between private parties, implicates the interests of the United States in this area. Once it is determined that an area of uniquely federal interest is implicated, state law will be displaced only where a "significant conflict" exists between an identifiable federal policy or interest and the operation of state law, or the application of state law would frustrate specific objectives of federal legislation. Here, the state-imposed duty of care that is the asserted basis of the contractor's liability is precisely contrary to the duty imposed by the Government contract. But even in this situation, it would be unreasonable to say that there is always a "significant conflict" between state law and a federal policy or interest. In search of a limiting principle to identify when a significant

Page 487 U. S. 501

conflict is present, the Court of Appeals relied on the rationale of Feres v. United States, 340 U. S. 135. This produces results that are in some respects too broad and in some respects too narrow. However, the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act does demonstrate the potential for, and suggest the outlines of, "significant conflict" between federal interest and state law in this area. State law is displaced where judgment against the contractor would threaten a discretionary function of the Government. In sum, state law which imposes liability for design defects in military equipment is displaced where (a) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (b) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (c) the supplier warned the United States about dangers in the use of the equipment known to the supplier but not to the United States. Pp. 487 U. S. 504-513.

2. Also without merit is petitioner's contention that, since the Government contractor defense formulated by the Court of Appeals differed from the instructions given by the District Court to the jury, the Seventh Amendment guarantee of jury trial requires a remand for trial on the new theory. If the evidence presented in the first trial would not suffice, as a matter of law, to support a jury verdict under the properly formulated defense, judgment could properly be entered for respondent at once, without a new trial. It is unclear from the Court of Appeals' opinion, however, whether it was in fact deciding that no reasonable jury could, under the properly formulated defense, have found for the petitioner on the facts presented, or rather was assessing on its own whether the defense had been established. The latter would be error, since whether the facts established the conditions for the defense is a question for the jury. The case is remanded for clarification of this point. Pp. 487 U. S. 513-514.

792 F.2d 413, vacated and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 487 U. S. 515. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 487 U. S. 531.

Page 487 U. S. 502

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