United States v. Shearer

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: United States Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 84-194
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 473 US 52 (1985)
ARGUED: Feb 25, 1985
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1985

Kenneth Steven Geller - on behalf of Petitioner
William T. Cannon - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Shearer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 1985 in United States v. Shearer

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Geller, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

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

This case arises out of a rather unfortunate incident that occurred in New Mexico in 1979.

Andrew Heard, who was a soldier in the United States Army stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, murdered Vernon Shearer, who was also a soldier stationed at Fort Bliss, when both men were off base and off duty.

And Heard was later sentenced to 15 to 55 years in prison in the state court for second degree murder.

Now, thereafter, Shearer's mother, who is the Respondent in this Court, sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act seeking damages for her son's death.

Respondent alleged that Heard had certain well-known dangerous propensities, and that the Army's negligent failure to control him, or to discharge him from the military, or to warn other soldiers about him was the cause of Shearer's death.

The Government moved for summary judgment on the basis of two exceptions to the Tort Claims Act.

One is the intentional tort exception in Section 2680(h) of Title VIII, and the other is the Feres doctrine.

The district court granted the Government's motion for summary judgment, but a divided court of appeals reversed.

The Third Circuit held that Respondent's suit was not barred by the intentional tort exception because her complaint was framed in terms of negligence, and the court held that it was not barred by the Feres doctrine because Shearer's injuries had not occurred, in the court's view, incident to his military service.

Now, we sought certiorari because we believe that these rulings are plainly erroneous and conflict with numerous other decisions construing the Tort Claims Act.

Now, I'd like to begin by discussing the intentional tort exception first, because we believe that the plain language of that provision on its face unquestionably disposes of Respondent's claim.

The Tort Claims Act by its terms does not apply to any claim

"arising out of certain intentional torts, including assault and battery. "

Now, there can't really be much doubt, we believe, that Respondent's claim here clearly arises out of Heard's assault and battery within the ordinary meaning of that phrase.

Heard's assault and battery directly gave rise to the injuries suffered by Respondent.

Respondent unquestionably would have no cause of action if it wasn't for Heard's assault and battery.

And the damages that she seeks here are precisely those damages that arose from the assault and battery, no more and no less.

Her claim, therefore, we believe falls within the literal language of the intentional tort exception.

Now, the court of appeals attempted to avoid the straightforward language of Section 2680(h) by pointing out that Respondent's claim is drafted in terms of negligence rather than directly charging the Government with assault and battery.

It is undoubtedly true that Respondent, with an eye on Section 2680(h), has framed her complaint here to charge negligence rather than directly charge assault and battery; but we believe that a plaintiff's drafting decision plainly can't control the waiver of sovereign immunity that Congress has placed in the Tort Claims Act.

It is a crucial--

John Paul Stevens:

May I ask one question on the Government's theory?

Supposing we take it out of the military context for a moment and put it in a federal prison, and there was an allegation of negligence in administering the discipline and all the rest of the prison, and that one inmate assaulted another inmate due to the negligence in supervision.

Is that within the exemption or not?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

--Well, I think one could read Section 2680(h) even to cover that situation, but we have not suggested that.

There's a line of cases that--

John Paul Stevens:

I understand there's a line of cases.

Kenneth Steven Geller: