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Feres v. United States

Court U.S. Supreme Court, United States
Case number 340 U.S. 135
Decision title Opinion of the Court
Decision date 4 December 1950
  • Feres
  • United States
Keywords (Sovereign) Immunity
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Ms. Feres brought a claim for compensation for the death of her husband, who was a member of the armed forces. Her husband died in a fire in the barracks at Pine Camp, New York, which was a military post of the US. Feres claimed that the US was responsible for the death because it was known or should have been known that the barracks were unsafe.

The District Court dismissed the claim. The dismissal was confirmed by the Court of Appeals.

Feres appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court upheld the dismissal because the claim was based on law, the Federal Tort Claims Act, which did not provide for compensation in case of injuries suffered by military personnel in the course of activity incident to service.

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Procedural history

Ms. Feres brought a claim against the U.S. She claimed compensation for the death of her husband, army lieutenant Rudolph Feres, who died in 1947 in a barracks fire at Pine Camp, New York, while on active duty in service of the U.S. The plaintiff claimed that it was known or should have been known that the barracks were unsafe due to a defective heating plant, and, in addition, that the fire guard assigned to the area had failed to maintain an adequate fire watch. Therefore, the plaintiff claimed compensation for the death of her husband caused by negligence.

The District Court dismissed the claim.

On 4 November 1949, the Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, confirmed the dismissal.

Feres filed a complaint to the Supreme Court, which combined three cases that shared the fact that the appellants, or the relatives on whose behalf they had filed a complaint, were on active duty when they suffered damages due to negligence of others in the armed forces - the Feres case, the Jefferson case, and the Griggs case.

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Related developments

The Feres doctrine, according to which American soldiers cannot sue the U.S. government for injuries due to negligence, has been widely criticised. On 21 November 2013, the Center for Constitutional Litigation (CCL), on behalf of the American Association for Justice, filed an amicus brief in the Read v. United States case. In the amicus brief, the CCL urged the Supreme Court to reconsider and overturn the Feres doctrine.

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Core legal questions

Does the Tort Claims Act extend its remedy to one sustaining "incident to the service"?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

Federal Tort Claims Act, 1946 (Title 28 U.S. Code, Chapter 171):

  • Section 2671 - Definitions

  • Section 2674 - Liability of United States

  • Section 2672 - Administrative adjustment of claims

  • Section 2680 (j) - Exceptions

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Court's holding and analysis

The Supreme Court analysed the purpose of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). It held that even though the FTCA gives jurisdiction over ‘civil actions on claims against the United States’, it does not require all claims to be allowed. The test to determine whether a claim is allowable is prescribed in section 2674 of the FTCA: ‘The United States shall be liable . . . in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances . . .,”’. Therefore, the Court held that the FTCA provides for existing causes of action and does not create new ones. In this regard, the Court noted that it could not find any parallel liability and there was ‘no American law which ever has permitted a soldier to recover for negligence, against either his superior officers or the Government he is serving’ (p. 4).

In respect of the law governing liability, thus the law of the place where the act or omission occurred, the Court held that it makes no sense ‘that the geography of an injury should select the law to be applied’ to a soldier’s tort law claim. Moreover, it held that it would not be rational to make soldiers ‘dependent upon geographic considerations over which they have no control’ (p. 5).

Lastly, the Court held that the relationship between the U.S. Government and members of its armed forces is federal in nature, and federal law excludes claims for injury incurred by military personnel while on active duty and resulting from negligent behavior of other members of the armed forces (p. 5).

Therefore, the Court ruled that the ‘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’. Accordingly, it affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals (p. 6).

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Further analysis

R. S. Lehmann, ‘The Effect of the Feres Doctrine on Tort Actions Against the United States by Family Members of Servicemen’, Fordham Law Review, 1982, Vol. 50(6), pp. 1241-1267.

T. J. Whalen, ‘Feres And Stencel Revisited: Liability of the United States for Contribution and Indemnity in Cases Involving Servicemen’, The Forum (Section of Insurance, Negligence and Compensation Law, American Bar Association), 1982, Vol. 18(1), pp. 107-116.

J. Astley, ‘United States v. Johnson: Feres Doctrine Gets New Life And Continues to Grow’, The American University Law Review, 1988, Vol. 38, pp. 185-224.

T. M. Gallaghar, ‘Servicemembers’ Rights under the Feres Doctrine: Rethinking Incident to Service Analysis’, Villanova Law Review, January 1988, Vol. 33(1), pp. 175- 203.

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Instruments cited

Federal Tort Claims Act, 1946 (Title 28 U.S. Code, Chapter 171)

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Additional materials

The Feres Doctrine’, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

R. Natelson, ‘The Unfairness of the Feres Doctrine’, TIME, 25 February 2013.

‘CCL Urges U.S. Supreme Court To Reconsider Feres Doctrine’, Center for Constitutional Litigation, 21 November 2013.

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Social media links

L. Shane III, ‘Supreme Court deals devastating blow to Feres Doctrine opponents’, Stars and Stripes, 27 June 2011.

A. Bernabe, ‘Military contractors, the Feres Doctrine and The Good Wife’, Torts Blog, 5 November 2012.

S. Vladeck, ‘Justice Thomas and the Feres Doctrine’, Lawfare, 27 June 2013.

C. A. Blanchard, ‘Questioning the Feres Doctrine’, Air Force General Counsel Blog, 1 July 2013.

A. C. O'Donnell, ‘Unfair Feres Doctrine Bars Wrongful Death Suit for Soldier's Baby’, Wounded Times, 8 November 2013.