United States v. S.A. Empressa de Viacao Aerea Rio Grandense (Varig Airlines)

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: S.A. Empressa de Viacao Aerea Rio Grandense (Varig Airlines)
LOCATION: Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida - Dade County

DOCKET NO.: 82-1349
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 467 US 797 (1984)
ARGUED: Jan 18, 1984
DECIDED: Jun 19, 1984

Kenneth Steven Geller - Argued the cause for the United States
Richard F. Gerry - Argued the cause for the respondents in both cases

Facts of the case

The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 directs the Secretary of Transportation to "promote the safety of civil aircraft" by establishing minimum standards of airworthiness. Pursuant to this directive, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), acting as the Secretary's designee, instituted a certification process for the design and manufacture of all private aircraft. Under FAA rules, manufacturers are required to develop the plans and specifications and perform the inspections and tests necessary to establish that an aircraft design comports with the regulations. FAA engineers then conduct "spot-check" inspections of the manufacturer's work. This case arose out of two separate accidents in which commercial aircraft, certified by the FAA or its predecessor, caught fire mid-air, resulting in the deaths of most of the people on board one plane and all of the people on board the other. Each accident was found to have been caused by a faulty part a trash receptacle in one case; a gas burning cabin heater in the other which did not comply with FAA regulations. In both cases, plaintiffs sued the U.S. under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) on the ground that the FAA or its predecessor negligently issued certificates for the respective aircraft. The district court in the first case granted summary judgment on the ground, inter alia, that recovery against the U.S. was barred by 28 U.S.C. Section 2680(a), which provides a discretionary function exception to the FTCA. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the discretionary function exception did not apply, and that the U.S., just as a private party, could be held liable for negligent inspection under the California "Good Samaritan" rule. In the other case, the district court entered judgment for plaintiffs under the California "Good Samaritan" rule, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.


Can the U.S. be held liable under the FTCA for the FAA's decision to use the "spot-check" program to monitor compliance with airworthiness certification standards?

Media for United States v. S.A. Empressa de Viacao Aerea Rio Grandense (Varig Airlines)

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 18, 1984 in United States v. S.A. Empressa de Viacao Aerea Rio Grandense (Varig Airlines)

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in United States v. Varig Airlines and the consolidated case.

Mr. Geller, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

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

The Federal Aviation Administration has been charged by Congress with the responsibility of promoting safety of flight of civil aircraft.

The agency fulfills its statutory mandate in two principal ways, one of which is essentially legislative, the other of which can be described as law enforcement.

First, the FAA promulgates regulations prescribing minimum safety standards governing the design, material, construction and performance of civil aircraft.

These standards take up more than 500 pages in Title VIX in the Code of Federal Regulations.

The second, the FAA tries to police the aircraft industry's compliance with these safety standards by reviewing design and performance data, conducting tests and deciding whether to certify that particular aircraft are in conformity with its regulations.

Congress has made it unlawful to operate an airplane that does not have a current airworthiness certificate issued by the FAA.

These cases were brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act on behalf of the owners and passengers of two airplanes that crashed due to in-flight fires.

Respondents sought more than $100 million in damages from the United States on the ground that the FAA was negligent in carrying cut its statutory responsibilities by certifying the airplanes that crashed even though they allegedly did not comply with the Agency's safety standards.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with Respondents' arguments.

We have sought certiorari because we believe that Congress could not possibly have intended to expose the United States to tort liability to members of the general public for errors in carrying out its regulatory responsibilities.

Although the issues here are solely ones of law, I think it would be useful to begin by briefly describing the facts of these cases in order to show just how far reaching and unprecedented the Ninth Circuit's judgment in this case really is.

The United Scottish Insurance case involves an airplane that was manufactured in the United Kingdom in 1951.

It was sold to an air taxi service known as Air Wisconsin.

In 1965 Air Wisconsin contracted with Aerodyne Engineering Corporation for the installation of a gasoline fuel heater, and as required by FAA regulations Aerodyne applied for what is called a supplemental type certificate authorizing the installation of the heater.

In 1966, the following year, the airplane was sold by Air Wisconsin to Respondent Dowdle who owned Catalina-Vegas Airlines, another air taxi service.

Between 1966 and the crash of that plane in 1968 Catalina-Vegas inspected its airplane on at least eight occasions including two major yearly inspections of the gasoline heater.

The District Court found that the crash occurred because the gasoline line leading to the heater was not adequately clamped to reduce vibration allegedly in violation of the FAA safety standard prohibiting "excessive vibration in fuel lines".

The court held that the FAA was negligent in inspecting the airplane and in issuing a supplemental type certificate.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgement, as I said a moment ago, agreeing with the District Court that the FAA was liable under California's law as a good samaritan.

The Ninth Circuit said that the government had performed a service for the Respondents within the meaning of the Good Samaratin Doctrine and that the government should expect that members of the general public would rely on its certifications of airworthiness.

Warren E. Burger:

What was the time lapse between the government's inspection and the accident?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

The inspection would have taken place in 1965.

The accident took place in 1968.

The facts of the Varig case involve conduct by the FAA, Mr. Chief Justice, even more remote than the three years that was involved in United Scottish.

The Varig concerns the crash of a Boeing 707 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 1973.

The FAA had issued a type certificate for the Boeing 707 in 1958, 15 years prior to the crash.

The plane involved in that case had been sold by Boeing to Seaboard Airlines.