Dalehite v. United StatesAnnotate this Case
346 U.S. 15 (1953)
U.S. Supreme Court
Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15 (1953)
Dalehite v. United States
Argued April 6-8, 1953
Decided June 8, 1953
346 U.S. 15
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
In this action against the United States under the Tort Claims Act to recover damages for a death resulting from the disastrous explosion at Texas City, Tex., of ammonium nitrate fertilizer produced at the instance, according to the specifications, and under the control of the United States, for export to increase the food supply in areas under military occupation following World War II, the District Court found that the explosion resulted from negligence on the part of the Government in adopting the fertilizer export program as a whole, in its control of various phases of manufacturing, packaging, labeling and shipping the product, in failing to give notice of its dangerous nature to persons handling it, and in failing to police its loading on shipboard.
Held: as a matter of law, the facts found by the District Court cannot give it jurisdiction of the cause under the Act, because the claim is
"based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government"
within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a), which makes the Act inapplicable to such claims. Pp. 346 U. S. 17-45.
(a) The legislative history of the Act discloses that § 2680(a) was included to assure protection for the Government against tort liability for errors in administration or in the exercise of discretionary functions. Pp. 346 U. S. 24-30.
(b) The "discretionary function or duty" that cannot form a basis for suit under the Act includes more than the initiation of programs and activities; it also includes determinations made by executives or administrators in establishing plans, specifications, or schedules of operations. Acts of subordinates in carrying out the operations of government in accordance with official directions cannot be actionable. Pp. 346 U. S. 30-36.
(c) The acts of "negligence" found by the District Court do not subject the Government to liability, because the decisions found culpable were all responsibly made in the exercise of judgment at a planning, rather than an operational, level, and involved
considerations more or less important to the practicability of the Government's fertilizer program. Pp. 346 U. S. 37-42.
(d) The District Court's finding that the Coast Guard and other agencies were negligent in failing to prevent the fire by regulating storage or loading of the fertilizer is classically within the exception relating to acts based on legislative judgment. Pp. 346 U. S. 42-43.
(e) The alleged failure in fighting the fire is also outside the coverage of the Act, for the Act did not change the normal rule that an alleged failure or carelessness of public firemen does not create private actionable rights. Pp. 346 U. S. 43-44.
(f) Since the Act may be invoked only on a "negligent or wrongful act or omission" of an employee, it created no absolute liability of the Government by virtue of its ownership of an "inherently dangerous commodity" or property, or of its engaging in an "extra-hazardous" activity. Pp. 346 U. S. 44-45.
197 F.2d 771 affirmed.
MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioners seek damages from the United States for the death of Henry G. Dalehite in explosions of fertilizer with an ammonium nitrate base at Texas City, Texas, on April 16 and 17, 1947. This is a test case, representing some 300 separate personal and property claims in the aggregate amount of two hundred million dollars. Consolidated trial was had in the District Court for the Southern District of Texas on the facts and the crucial question of federal liability generally. This was done under an arrangement that the result would be accepted as to those matters in the other suits. Judgment was rendered following separate proof of damages for these individual plaintiffs in the sum of $75,000. Damages in the other claims remain to be determined. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit unanimously reversed, however, In re Texas City Disaster Litigation, 197 F.2d 771, and we granted certiorari, 344 U.S. 873, because the case presented an important problem of federal statutory interpretation.
The suits were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346, 2671-2678, 2680. That Act waived sovereign immunity from suit for certain specified torts of federal employees. It did not assure injured persons damages for all injuries caused by such employees.
The Act provides that the federal district courts, "[s]ubject to the provisions of [the act]," are to have:
"exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages, accruing on and after January 1, 1945, for injury or
loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred."
There is an exception from the scope of this provision. Section 2680 reads:
"The provisions of this chapter and section 1346(b) of this title shall not apply to --"
"(a) Any claim based upon an act or omission of an employee of the Government, exercising due care, in the execution of a statute or regulation, whether or not such statute or regulation be valid, or based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government, whether or not the discretion involved be abused."
Suing under this grant of jurisdiction, the plaintiffs claimed negligence, substantially on the part of the entire body of federal officials and employees involved in a program of production of the material -- Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate (FGAN hereafter) -- in which the original fire occurred, and which exploded. This fertilizer had been produced and distributed at the instance, according to the specifications, and under the control, of the United States.
The adaptability of the material for use in agriculture had been recognized long prior to 1947. The Government's interest in the matter began in 1943 when the TVA, acting under its statutory delegation to undertake experiments and "manufacture" fertilizer, 48 Stat. 61, 16
U.S.C. § 831d, first began production for commercial purposes. [Footnote 1] TVA used plant facilities formerly used for production of ammonium nitrate for explosives. In the year 1943, the War Production Board, responsible for the production and allocation of war materials, Exec. Order 9024, January 16, 1942, 7 Fed.Reg. 329, instituted a program of yearly production of 30,000 tons a month of FGAN for private domestic agricultural use through plants no longer required for ammunition production. Administration was to be carried on through the Army's Bureau of Ordnance. The TVA specifications were followed, and advice given by its experts. This early production for domestic use furnished a test for manufacture and utility of FGAN.
The particular FGAN involved at Texas City came to be produced for foreign use for these reasons: following the World War II hostilities, the United States' obligations as an occupying power, [Footnote 2] and the danger of internal unrest, forced this Government to deal with the problem of feeding the populations of Germany, Japan, and Korea. Direct shipment of foodstuffs was impractical; available fertilizer was in short supply, and requirements from the United States were estimated at about 800,000 tons. However, some 15 ordnance plants had been deactivated and turned over to the War Assets Administration, 44 CFR, Part 401, for disposal. Under-Secretary of War Royall suggested in May of 1946, and Secretary Patterson agreed, that these be used for production of fertilizer needed for export. [Footnote 3] The Director of
the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, 58 Stat. 785, 50 U.S.C.App. § 1651 et seq. (1944 ed.), acting under the power delegated by the President in Exec.Order 9347, May 27, 1943, 8 Fed.Reg. 7207 and Exec.Order 9488, October 3, 1944, 9 Fed.Reg. 12145, ordered the plants into operation. Cabinet approval followed. The War Department allocated funds from its appropriations for "Supplies" and "Military Posts" for 1946; direct appropriations for relief in the occupied areas were made by Congress in the following year. [Footnote 4] The Army's Chief of Ordnance was delegated the responsibility for carrying out the plan, and was authorized particularly to enter into cost plus fixed fees contracts with private companies for the operation of the plants' facilities. He, in turn, appointed the Field Director of Ammunition Plants (FDAP) to administer the program. Thereafter, the Department entered into a number of contracts with private firms -- including the du Pont Co. and Hercules Powder Co. -- to "operate the installations . . . described herein for the graining of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer grade)," but subjecting "the work to be done by the Contractor . . . to the general supervision, direction, control and approval of the Contracting Officer." A detailed set of specifications was drawn up and sent to each plant which included "FDAP Specifications for Products" and a similar TVA paper. Army personnel were appointed for each plant. These were responsible for the application of these specifications, liaison with supply officials,
and satisfaction of production schedules, pursuant to an Army Standard Operating Procedure. Beyond this, operations were controlled by the administering corporation, which supplied the personnel and production experience required. [Footnote 5]
FGAN's basic ingredient was ammonium nitrate, long used as a component in explosives. Its adaptability as a fertilizer stemmed from its high free nitrogen content. Hercules Powder Company had first manufactured a fertilizer compound in this form on the basis of Cairns Explosive Patent, No. 2,211,738, of August 13, 1940. The Cairns process contemplates a product substantially identical to the Texas City FGAN. The process was licensed to the United States. The Government produced ammonium nitrate at certain other federal plants, and shipped it in solution to the reactivated graining centers for concentration. Thereafter, in addition to clay, a mixture of petrolatum, rosin, and paraffin (PRP hereafter) was added to insure against caking through water absorption. The material was then grained to fertilizer specification, dried, and packaged in 6-ply paper bags, marked "Fertilizer Ammonium Nitrate."
At the inception of the program, however, it appeared that these particular plants were unable to produce sufficient quantities of fertilizer to meet the early needs of the planned allocation. So early shipments to the occupied territories were made up of lots privately produced, and released to the War Department by the Combined Food Board and purchased by the United States, pursuant to an allocation arrangement approved by the Board acting through the Civilian Production Administration, established by Exec.Order 9638, October 4, 1945, 10 Fed.Reg. 12591. Thereafter the private producers could
replenish their supply for private sale by purchasing government-produced FGAN if they so desired.
The particular FGAN transported to Texas City had been produced at three of the plants activated by the Government for the foreign fertilizer program, and allotted to the Lion Oil Co., which had previously sold FGAN to the Army pursuant to their sell-back agreement. The agreement provided that title was to pass to Lion on payment. The original contract of sale to the Army having provided that Lion could designate a recipient other than itself for the replacement FGAN, Lion contracted with the Walsen Company for resale. Walsen operated as broker for the French Supply Council, representing the French Government, which had secured a preferential fertilizer allocation from the Civilian Production Administration. Pursuant thereto, Walsen transmitted the French shipping orders to Lion, who turned them over to the Army for execution. The FGAN was consigned to the French Supply Council at Texas City by government bills of lading. The Council insured the shipment in its own name, arranged for credit with New York banks, and assigned part thereof to Lion sufficient to cover the shipments here involved, payable on presentation of shipping documents. It also directed Lion to "consign all lots French Supply Council for storage and eventual exportation Texas City Terminal Texas."
By April 15, 1947, following three weeks warehouse storage at Texas City on orders of the French Council, some 1,850 tons of the FGAN thus resold had been loaded on the French Government-owned steamship Grandcamp, and some 1,000 tons on the privately owned High Flyer by independent stevedores hired by the French. [Footnote 6] The Grandcamp carried in addition a substantial
cargo of explosives, and the High Flyer 2,000 tons of sulphur at the time. At about 8:15 a.m. of the next day, smoke was sighted in the Grandcamp hold, and all efforts to halt the fire were unavailing. [Footnote 7] Both ships exploded, and much of the city was leveled, and many people killed.
Since no individual acts of negligence could be shown, the suits for damages that resulted necessarily predicated government liability on the participation of the United States in the manufacture and the transportation of FGAN. Following the disaster, of course, no one could fail to be impressed with the blunt fact that FGAN would explode. In sum, petitioners charged that the Federal Government had brought liability on itself for the catastrophe by using a material in fertilizer which had been used as an ingredient of explosives for so long that industry knowledge gave notice that other combinations of ammonium nitrate with other material might explode. The negligence charged was that the United States, without definitive investigation of FGAN properties, shipped or permitted shipment to a congested area without warning of the possibility of explosion under certain conditions. The District Court accepted this theory. His judgment was based on a series of findings of causal negligence which, for our purposes, can be roughly divided into three kinds -- those which held that the Government had been careless in drafting and adopting the fertilizer export plan as a whole, those which found specific negligence in various phases of the manufacturing process, and those which emphasized official dereliction of duty in failing to
police the shipboard loading. The Court of Appeals en banc unanimously reversed, but, since only three of the six judges explicitly rejected the bulk of these findings, we shall consider the case as one in which they come to us unimpaired. Cf. Labor Board v. Pittsburgh Steamship Co.,340 U. S. 498, 340 U. S. 503; United States v. United States Gypsum Co.,333 U. S. 364, 333 U. S. 395. Even assuming their correctness arguendo, though, it is our judgment that they do not establish a case within the Act. [Footnote 8] This is for the reason that, as a matter of law, the facts found cannot give the District Court jurisdiction of the cause under the Tort Claims Act.
I. The Federal Tort Claims Act was passed by the Seventy-ninth Congress in 1946 as Title IV of the Legislative Reorganization Act, 60 Stat. 842, after nearly thirty years of congressional consideration. It was the offspring of a feeling that the Government should assume the obligation to pay damages for the misfeasance of employees in carrying out its work. And the private bill device was
notoriously clumsy. [Footnote 9] Some simplified recovery procedure for the mass of claims was imperative. This Act was Congress' solution, affording instead easy and simple access to the federal courts for torts within its scope. [Footnote 10]
The meaning of the governmental regulatory function exception from suits, § 1680(a), shows most clearly in the history of the Tort Claims Bill in the Seventy-seventh Congress. The Seventy-ninth, which passed the Act, held no hearings on the Act. Instead, it integrated the language of the Seventy-seventh Congress, which had first considered the exception, into the Legislative Reorganization Act as Title IV.
Earlier tort claims bills considered by Congress contained reservations from the abdication of sovereign immunity. Prior to 1942, these exceptions were couched in terms of specific spheres of federal activity, such as postal service, the activities of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or the collection of taxes. [Footnote 11] In 1942, however, the Seventy-seventh Congress drafted a two-fold elimination of claims based on the execution of a regulation or statute or on the exercise of a discretionary function. The language of the bills then introduced in both the House and Senate, in fact, was identical with that of § 2680(a) as adopted. [Footnote 12] The exception was drafted as a clarifying amendment to the House bill to assure protection for the
Government against tort liability for errors in administration or in the exercise of discretionary functions. [Footnote 13] An Assistant Attorney General, appearing before the Committee especially for that purpose, [Footnote 14] explained it as avoiding
"any possibility that the act may be construed to authorize damage suits against the Government growing out of a legally authorized activity,"
merely because "the same conduct by a private individual would be tortious." It was not
"intended that the constitutionality of legislation, the legality of regulations, or the propriety of a discretionary administrative act should be tested through the medium of a damage suit for tort. The same holds true of other administrative action not of a regulatory nature, such as the expenditure of Federal Funds, the execution of a Federal project and the like. [Footnote 15]"
Referring to a prior bill which had not contained the "discretionary function" exemption, the House Committee on the Judiciary was advised that
"the cases embraced within [the new] subsection would have been exempted from [the prior] bill by judicial construction. It is not probable that the courts would extend a Tort Claims Act into the realm of the validity of legislation or discretionary administrative action, but H.R. 6463 makes this specific. [Footnote 16]"
The legislative history indicates that, while Congress desired to waive the Government's immunity from actions for injuries to person and property occasioned by the tortious conduct of its agents acting within their scope of
business, [Footnote 17] it was not contemplated that the Government should be subject to liability arising from acts of a governmental nature or function. [Footnote 18] Section 2680(a) draws this distinction. Uppermost in the collective mind of Congress were the ordinary common law torts. [Footnote 19] Of these, the example which is reiterated in the course of the repeated proposals for submitting the United States to tort liability is "negligence in the operation of vehicles." [Footnote 20] On the other hand, the Committee's reports explain the boundaries of the sovereign immunity waived, as defined
by this § 2680 exception, with one paragraph which appears time and again after 1942, and in the House Report of the Congress that adopted in § 2680(a) the limitation in the language proposed for the 77th Congress. [Footnote 21] It was adopted by the Committee in almost the
language of the Assistant Attorney General's explanation. This paragraph characterizes the general exemption as
"a highly important exception, intended to preclude any possibility that the bill might be construed to authorize suit for damages against the Government growing out of authorized activity, such as a flood control or irrigation project, where no negligence on the part of any government agent is shown and the only ground for the suit is the contention that the same conduct by a private individual would be tortious. . . . The bill is not intended to authorize a suit for damages to test the validity of or provide a remedy on account of such discretionary acts, even though negligently performed and involving an abuse of discretion."
II. Turning to the interpretation of the Act, our reasoning as to its applicability to this disaster starts from the accepted jurisprudential principle that no action lies against the United States unless the legislature has authorized it. [Footnote 22] The language of the Act makes the United States liable
"respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances."
28 U.S.C. § 2674. This statute is another example of the progressive relaxation by legislative enactments of the rigor of the immunity rule. Through such statutes that change the law, organized government
expresses the social purposes that motivate its legislation. Of course, these modifications are entitled to a construction that will accomplish their aim, [Footnote 23] that is, one that will carry out the legislative purpose of allowing suits against the Government for negligence with due regard for the statutory exceptions to that policy. In interpreting the exceptions to the generality of the grant, courts include only those circumstances which are within the words and reason of the exception. [Footnote 24] They cannot do less, since petitioners obtain their "right to sue from Congress [and they] necessarily must take [that right] subject to such restrictions as have been imposed." Federal Housing Administration v. Burr,309 U. S. 242, 309 U. S. 251.
So our decisions have interpreted the Act to require clear relinquishment of sovereign immunity to give jurisdiction for tort actions. [Footnote 25] Where jurisdiction was clear,
though, we have allowed recovery despite arguable procedural objections. [Footnote 26]
One only need read § 2680 in its entirety to conclude that Congress exercised care to protect the Government from claims, however negligently caused, that affected the governmental functions. Negligence in administering the Alien Property Act, or establishing a quarantine, assault, libel, fiscal operations, etc., were barred. An analysis of § 2680(a), the exception with which we are concerned, emphasizes the congressional purpose to except the acts here charged as negligence from the authorization to sue. [Footnote 27] It will be noted from the form of the section, see p. 346 U. S. 18, supra, that there are two phrases describing
the excepted acts of government employees. The first deals with acts or omissions of government employees, exercising due care in carrying out statutes or regulations, whether valid or not. It bars tests by tort action of the legality of statutes and regulations. The second is applicable in this case. It excepts acts of discretion in the performance of governmental functions or duty "whether or not the discretion involved be abused." Not only agencies of government are covered, but all employees exercising discretion. [Footnote 28] It is clear that the just-quoted clause as to abuse connotes both negligence and wrongful acts in the exercise of the discretion, because the Act itself covers only "negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee" "within the scope of his office" "where the United States, if a private person, would be liable." 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). The exercise of discretion could not be abused without negligence or a wrongful act. The Committee reports, note 19supra, show this. They say § 2680(a) is to preclude action for "abuse of discretionary authority -- whether or not negligence is alleged to have been involved." They speak of excepting a "remedy on account of such discretionary
acts even though negligently performed and involving an abuse of discretion." [Footnote 29]
So we know that the draftsmen did not intend it to relieve the Government from liability for such common law torts as an automobile collision caused by the negligence of an employee, see p. 346 U. S. 28, supra, of the administering agency. We know it was intended to cover more than the administration of a statute or regulation, because it appears disjunctively in the second phrase of the section. The "discretion" protected by the section is not that of the judge -- a power to decide within the limits of positive rules of law subject to judicial review. It is the discretion of the executive or the administrator to act according to one's judgment of the best course, a concept of substantial historical ancestry in American law. [Footnote 30]
This contention is met by petitioners with these arguments:
"To accept the foregoing close and narrow reasoning [of the Court of Appeals], which is unrealistic, is to say that a program and undertaking and operation, however like it may be to some private corporation or operation such as the manufacture of an explosive, is nevertheless throughout discretionary if the concept thereof is born in discretion. . . .
Petitioners assert that, in the manufacturing . . . of FGAN, . . . the Government was not charged with any discretionary function or opportunity of discretion, but was charged with the duty of due and reasonable care."
"This Court has always applied the theory of discretionary function only to the executive and legislative levels, and has made such function the basis of freedom from interference by the courts a personal one to the particular executive or the legislative branch. Such discretionary function may not be delegated down to subordinates and to others."
"The Government's argument, adopted by Judge Rives, is that the responsible Government employees were choosing between alternative courses of action in the steps they took. . . . The argument is that the alleged negligence was in the exercise of 'discretion' simply because it involved a choice."
"* * * *"
"The negligence involved here was far removed from any Cabinet decision to provide aid to Germans and Japanese. . . . It is directed only to the mistakes of judgment and the careless oversight of Government employees who were carrying out a program of manufacturing and shipping fertilizer and who failed to concern themselves as a reasonable man should with the safety of others. . . . Congress delegated to Ordnance no 'discretion' thus to commit wrong."
It is unnecessary to define, apart from this case, precisely where discretion ends. It is enough to hold, as we do, that the "discretionary function or duty" that cannot form a basis for suit under the Tort Claims Act includes more than the initiation of programs and activities. It also includes determinations made by executives or administrators
in establishing plans, specifications, or schedules of operations. [Footnote 31] Where there is room for policy judgment and decision, there is discretion. It necessarily follows that acts of subordinates in carrying out the operations of government in accordance with official directions cannot be actionable. If it were not so, the protection of § 2680(a) would fail at the time it would be needed -- that is, when a subordinate performs or fails to perform a causal step, each action or nonaction being directed by the superior, exercising, perhaps abusing, discretion. [Footnote 32]
III. That the cabinet-level decision to institute the fertilizer export program was a discretionary act is not seriously disputed. Nor do we think that there is any doubt that the need for further experimentation with FGAN to determine the possibility of its explosion, under
conditions likely to be encountered in shipping, and its combustibility was a matter to be determined by the discretion of those in charge of the production. Obviously, having manufactured and shipped the commodity FGAN for more than three years without even minor accidents, the need for further experimentation was a matter of discretion. Reported instances of heating or bag damage were investigated, and experiments, to the extent deemed necessary, were carried on. In dealing with ammonium nitrate in any form, the industry, and of course Ordnance, was well aware that care must be taken. The best indication of the care necessary came from experience in FGAN production. The TVA had produced FGAN since 1943, and their experience, as we have indicated, pp. 346 U. S. 18-20, was not only available to Ordnance, but was used by them to the most minute detail. It is, we think, just such matters of governmental duties that were excepted from the Act.
We turn, therefore, to the specific acts of negligence charged in the manufacture. Each was in accordance with, and done under, specifications and directions as to how the FGAN was produced at the plants. The basic "Plan" was drafted by the office of the Field Director of Ammunitions Plants in June, 1946, prior to beginning production. [Footnote 33] It was drawn up in the light of prior experience by private enterprise and the TVA. In fact it was, as we have pointed out, based on the latter agency's engineering
techniques, and specifically adopted the TVA process description and specifications. [Footnote 34] This Plan was distributed to the various plants at the inception of the program.
Besides its general condemnation of the manufacture of FGAN, the District Court cited four specific acts of negligence in manufacture. [Footnote 35] Each of these acts looked upon as negligence was directed by this Plan. Applicable excepts follow. Bagging temperature was fixed. [Footnote 36] The type of bagging [Footnote 37] and the labeling thereof [Footnote 38] were also established. The PRP coating, too, was included in the specifications. [Footnote 39] The acts found to have
been negligence were thus performed under the direction of a plan developed at a high level under a direct delegation of planmaking authority from the apex of the Executive Department. The establishment of this Plan, delegated to the Field Director's Office, supra, p. 346 U. S. 20, clearly required the exercise of expert judgment.
This is to be seen, for instance, in the matter of the coating. The PRP was added in order to insure against water absorption. At stake was no mere matter of taste; ammonium nitrate, when wet, cakes, and is difficult to spread on fields as a fertilizer. So the considerations that dictated the decisions were crucial ones, involving the feasibility of the program itself, balanced against present knowledge of the effect of such a coating and the general custom of similar private industries.
And, assuming that high bagging temperatures in fact obtained, as the District Court found, the decision to bag at the temperature fixed was also within the exception. Maximum bagging temperatures were first established under the TVA specifications. That they were the product of an exercise of judgment, requiring consideration of a vast spectrum of factors, including some which touched directly the feasibility of the fertilizer export program, is clear. For instance, it appears several times in the record that the question of bagging temperatures was discussed by the Army plant officials, among others. In January, 1947, the Bureau of Explosives of the Association of American Railroads wrote to Ordnance concerning a box car fire of FGAN. The letter suggested a reduction of bagging temperatures. The Field Director of Ammunition Plants consulted the commanding officers on the matter. Those of two of the plants which manufactured the Texas City FGAN replied that loading was effected at about 200