United States v. Muniz

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Clauson's Inn

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 374 US 150 (1963)
ARGUED: Apr 22, 1963 / Apr 23, 1963
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1963

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Muniz

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 1963 in United States v. Muniz

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 22, 1963 in United States v. Muniz

Earl Warren:

Number 464, United States petitioner versus Carlos Muniz and Henry Winston.

Mr. Doolittle.

J. William Doolittle, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

These two cases present a single question but an important one, whether damage claims by federal prisoners for personal injuries sustained as an incident to their confinement and allegedly caused by the negligence of federal prison officials are cognizable under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The facts are simple and the cases arose on grants of motions to dismiss.

Respondent Winston filed a complaint, alleging that while he was an inmate in the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, he suffered a brain tumor.

That prison medical officers failed to use reasonable skill and care in examining him negligently arrived at a mistaken diagnosis of his condition and negligently failed to give him needed medical treatment, and that as a result he became permanently blind.

Mr. Winston seeks damages in the amount of $1 million.

Respondent Muniz complaint alleged that while he was an inmate in the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut, he was chased by a dozen fellow prisoners into a dormitory into which he was -- they were all thereafter locked by the guard.

That he was beaten unconscious by these fellow inmates sustaining a skull fracture which led to his partial blindness, and that United States was negligent in failing to have available sufficient guards to prevent the incident and in allowing mentally and physically abnormal prisoners to mingle with other prisoners without adequate safeguards and supervision, and respondent Muniz claims damages of $250,000.

Arthur J. Goldberg:


J. William Doolittle, Jr.:

I would say that the inference to be drawn from the complaint is that the fellow prisoners somehow had it in for Muniz or as Mr. Muniz alleges they were -- some of them were mentally and physically abnormal, but they -- for some reason or other they wanted to get him and that they chased him.

I might mention that the Danbury Institution is not a maximum security institution, it's one in which there would be considerably more freedom of action on the part of the prisoners.

Both complaints were dismissed on the ground that as the Federal Court had consistently held, the Federal Tort Claims Act does not apply to prisoner claims.

The Second Circuit reversed both judgments, first by a divided panel and then by a five to four vote of the entire bench and this Court brought the case here on the government's petition for a writ of certiorari.

The question is of course one of statutory interpretation.

We must come as close as we can to divining the intent of Congress.

The face of the Tort Claims Act discloses no clear purpose on the part of Congress either to include or to exclude prisoner claims, nor does the legislative history provide very much more enlightenment.

Both of the opinions of the courts below, I should say all four opinions of the courts below, and the government and the respondent have pointed to various circumstances in the history of the Act contending that there was one purpose or another on the part of Congress.

I think it's fair to say however that on balancing all of these competing assertions one is left with the rather clear impression that in passing the Federal Tort Claims Act Congress simply did not focus one way or the other on whether or not prisoner claims should be covered by the Act.

There is one element in the statutory context of the Tort Claims Act as opposed to its specific history that we do think argues quite persuasively against the coverage of prisoner claims by the Act.

Prior to the passage of the Federal Tort Claims Act, Congress had established an administrative compensation scheme for injured prisoners, which it did not repeal when it passed the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Originally this program covered just accidents taking place in the course of prison industries, but recently in 1961 it was amended so that it now embraces all work related injuries, including institutional maintenance work at the prison.

Now we believe this remedy is the exclusive one for prisoners, and our belief is strengthened by the fact that Congress provided both in the original Act and in the Act as amended.

That compensation under this program should be no greater than that allowed by the Federal Employees Compensation Act.

It would be anomalous we think under the circumstances to allow prisoners to bring suits under the Tort Claims Act, which is a remedy that is unavailable to government employees under the Federal Employees Compensation Act because of the exclusivity of the program there established.

In short from the standpoint of a workable consistent statutory scheme of remedies against the government, we think the administrative compensation program for prisoners like those for government employees and soldiers should be considered exclusive and that no Tort Claims Act remedy should be available.

I might also point out of course that the remedy of private bills is always available for cases of extreme inequity and in point of fact Congress has quite regularly passed private bills for the benefits of prisoners injured in prison.


J. William Doolittle, Jr.:

In our brief or the statute?