United States v. James

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Southhampton County Circuit Court

DOCKET NO.: 85-434
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 478 US 597 (1986)
ARGUED: Apr 21, 1986
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1986

Andrew J. Pincus - on behalf of the Petitioner
T. John Ward - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. James

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 21, 1986 in United States v. James

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Pincus, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Andrew J. Pincus:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

In the wake of the devastating Mississippi River Flood of 1927, Congress embarked upon a massive federal program to control flood waters, directing the construction of public works on a massive scale in order to prevent a recurrence of the destruction that accompanied the 1927 flood.

The statute implementing this program included a comprehensive provision regarding the liability that could be imposed upon the federal government.

The provision states

"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 question presented in this case is whether, in light of this provision, which has been codified as Section 702(c) of Title 33, the government has unambiguously waived its sovereign immunity from tort liability for damage caused by the release of flood waters from a flood control project.

Now, this--

William H. Rehnquist:

I take it, Mr. Pincus, if it weren't for this provision, there would be little question that it had waived that liability by virtue of the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Andrew J. Pincus:

--Yes, Your Honor, that's correct.

It's the relationship between this provision and the Tort Claims Act that is at issue here, and we think in light of this provision, the Tort Claims Act could not be taken to have unambiguously waived the government's liability in this area.

Indeed, in light of the Tort Claims Act, Respondents have the burden of showing that the liability for which they seek to recover was unambiguously not covered by the provision, because even if the provision was ambiguous, then the Tort Claims Act waiver could not be unambiguous.

So we think in a way they have quite a difficult burden to overcome.

This particular case arises out of two separate incidents in which Respondents suffered damage as a result of the release of flood waters from flood control projects.

The first incident occurred at the Millwood Reservoir, a project located near Ashdown, Arkansas, designed to control flooding by the Red River.

On June 8, 1979, the reservoir was at flood level, and entrapped flood waters were being released through the reservoir's dam.

Respondents James and Butler were water skiing on the reservoir, and the current created by the discharge of the flood waters pulled Respondents and Respondent Butler's husband through the dam's gates.

Respondents were injured, and Respondent Butler's husband died.

The District Court found that the government had violated the duty of care imposed by state law by willfully and maliciously failing to warn Respondents of the danger caused by the current caused by the discharge of the flood waters.

The Court noted that the current had swept away the buoys that usually marked the area in front of the dam where the current was strong.

The District Court entered judgment in favor of the government, however, holding that Section 702(c) barred Respondents' tort actions because Respondents' injuries were caused by flood waters.

The second incident at issue here occurred at the Courtableau Drainage Structure, a flood control project located near Opelousas, Louisiana.

On May 17, 1980, the Bayou Courtableau was at flood level, and the drainage structure's gates were opened so that the bayou would not overflow its banks.

Kenneth and Joseph Clardy were fishing in the bayou, and their boat became caught in the current created by the discharge of water from the bayou, through the drainage structure.

The boat overturned, and Kenneth Clardy died.

The District Court in that case granted the government's motion for summary judgment, holding that Respondent Clardy's tort claim was barred by Section 702(c).

The Court found that Section 702(c) applied because the drainage structures' gates had been opened to prevent flooding, and the diverted waters were flood waters within the meaning of that provision.

The cases were consolidated on appeal, and the panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The panel stated that prior Fifth Circuit decisions bound it to hold that Section 702(c) barred Respondents' claims, but it indicated that it disagreed with those decisions.

The full Court of Appeals reheard the case en banc and reversed by a vote of nine to six.