Dolan v. Postal Service

PETITIONER: Barbara Dolan
RESPONDENT: United States Postal Service et al.
LOCATION: Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

DOCKET NO.: 04-848
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 546 US 481 (2006)
GRANTED: Apr 25, 2005
ARGUED: Nov 07, 2005
DECIDED: Feb 22, 2006

ADVOCATES:
James R. Radmore - argued the cause for Petitioners
Patricia A. Millett - argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

Barbara Dolan tripped over mail left on her porch by a mailman, injuring herself. She sued the Postal Service under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), arguing that her injuries were due to the mailman's negligence. The government, claiming that its sovereign immunity had not been waived in this particular case, moved to have the case dismissed. The FTCA, while waiving federal sovereign immunity for most incidents that could arise under it, has an exception for the "negligent transmission of letters or postal matter." Dolan argued that this exception referred only to mail that was lost or damaged by the Postal Service, not to people injured by the placement of the mail, but the district court disagreed. The case was dismissed, and the dismissal was affirmed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Question

Does the exception of "negligent transmission of letters or postal matter" from the general waiver of sovereign immunity in the Federal Tort Claims Act cover the negligent placement of mail at its final destination, when that placement causes injury?

Media for Dolan v. Postal Service

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 07, 2005 in Dolan v. Postal Service

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 22, 2006 in Dolan v. Postal Service

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has the opinion in No. 04-848, Dolan versus the United States Postal Service.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

As the Chief Justice indicates, this is our opinion in Dolan versus United States Postal Service.

Barbara Dolan alleged that the United States Postal Service left mail on her front porch at her residence and that that caused her to slip and fall.

She sued the Postal Service for resulting injuries.

The District Court and the Court of Appeals ordered her suit dismissed, and now Mrs. Dolan is the petitioner in this Court and she asks us to rule that the suit can proceed.

The Postal Service is an independent establishment of the Government of the United States.

That means that it enjoys immunity from suit unless the immunity has been waived.

The question here is whether there has been a waiver for suits of this type.

The case turns on provisions of the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The Act contains a broad waiver of immunity, but the waiver has some exceptions.

If one of the exceptions applies, then the immunity from suit has been retained.

The exception relevant to this case specifically applies to the Postal Service, and the question we must decide is how far that exception extends.

“By turns of the exception, immunity is retained,” which means suit is barred, “for claims arising out of a loss, miscarriage or negligent transmission of letters or postal matters”, and the key phrase for us here is the meaning of “negligent transmission”.

If considered in isolation, that term could embrace a wide range of negligent acts committed in the course of delivering mail.

This could include the creation of slip-and-fall hazards from leaving mail packets and parcels on the porch of a customer.

The Government urges us to adopt that interpretation.

It notes that each day, the Postal Service delivers some 660 million pieces of mail to as many as 142 million different points.

It is obviously concerned, then, with the potential for liability from slip-and-fall suits.

We think, though, that we must read “negligent transmission” in the statute in light of the more narrow phrase “loss or miscarriage of the mail”, phrases which precede it in the same statutory clause.

These words refer to destruction of the mail or delivering to the wrong address or delivering it late; and we do not write on a clean slate in this case.

In a decision by this Court in a case called Kosak v. United States, the Court held that this provision does not retain immunity for injuries resulting from auto accidents in which employees of the Postal Service were allegedly at fault.

Applying that reasoning here, we think the exception does not extend to this case; the exception as a general rule does not go beyond negligence causing mail to be lost or to arrive late or in damaged condition or at the wrong address.

In sum, Mrs. Dolan’s suit can proceed, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit must be reversed.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion; Justice Alito took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.