Central Green Company v. United States

PETITIONER: Central Green Company
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: White House

DOCKET NO.: 99-859
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 531 US 425 (2001)
ARGUED: Oct 30, 2000
DECIDED: Feb 21, 2001

ADVOCATES:
David C. Frederick - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Timothy Jones - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

The Madera Canal, a federal facility leased to the Madera Irrigation District (MID), flows through Central Green Co.'s 1,000 acres of pistachio orchards in California. Central Green filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the United States and the MID alleging that their negligence in the canal's design, construction, and maintenance caused subsurface flooding resulting in damage to the orchards and increased operating costs. The Federal Government moved for judgment on the pleadings based on immunity granted by the Flood Control Act of 1928, which states that "no liability of any kind shall attach to or rest upon the United States for any damage from or by floods or flood waters at any place." The complaint was then dismissed because the canal was a part of the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project, whose purpose was flood control. In affirming, the Court of Appeals held that although the canal serves no flood control purpose, immunity is attached solely because it is a branch of the larger project.

Question

Do the words "floods or flood waters" encompass all the water that flows through federal facilities, such that the Federal Government has immunity under the Flood Control Act of 1928 for damages such water may cause?

Media for Central Green Company v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 30, 2000 in Central Green Company v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 21, 2001 in Central Green Company v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 99-859 Central Green Co. against United States will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

The Madera Canal, a federal facility leased to the Madera Irrigation District, flows through petitioner's California orchards.

Petitioner brought suit against the United States and the district alleging that their negligence in designing, constructing, and maintaining the canal caused subsurface flooding resulting in damage to the orchards and increased operating costs for petitioner.

The complaint sought damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act and other relief.

Relying on the immunity granted by the Flood Control Act of 1928 which states that "No liability of any kind shall attach to or rest upon the United States for any damage from or by floods or flood waters at any place".

The United States moved for judgment on the pleadings.

The District Court dismissed the complaint because the parties agreed that the canal was a part of the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project, and that flood control was one of that project's purposes.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that although the canal serves no flood control purpose itself, immunity attached solely because the canal was part of the larger project.

A passage from this Court’s decision in United States against James, a case decided 15 years ago, which states that it is "clear from 702c's plain language that the terms 'flood' and 'flood waters' apply to all waters contained in or carried through a Federal Flood Control Project for purposes of or related to flood control" provided the basis for the Ninth Circuit's holding.

That passage however was unquestionably dictum.

Accordingly, we resort to the statute's text, as illuminated by the holding in James, rather than to that isolated comment, to determine whether Seciton 702c immunity attaches.

That holding namely that the phrase "flood or flood waters" encompasses waters that are released for flood control purposes when reservoired waters are at flood stage is very different from the Ninth Circuit's reading of Section 702c, under which immunity attaches simply because the Madera Canal is part of the Central Valley Project, and flood control is one of the project's purposes.

To characterize every drop of water that flows through the immense Central Valley Project as "flood water" simply because flood control is among its many purposes unnecessarily dilutes the statute's language.

The statute's text does not include the words "flood control project," but, rather, states that immunity attaches to "any damage from or by floods or flood waters”.

Because neither the statute's language nor this Court’s holding in James supports the Government's submission that 702c immunity must attach to all the water flowing through the canal we disavow the dicta from our decision in United States against James.

In determining whether 702c immunity attaches, courts should consider the character of the waters that cause the relevant damage and the purposes behind their release, rather than merely the relation between that damage and a flood control project.

Because the question of immunity was decided on the pleadings, using an incorrect test and without benefit of an evidentiary hearing or further factual development, the case is reversed remanded for further proceedings.

Our opinion is unanimous.