United States v. Muniz
374 U.S. 150 (1963)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Muniz, 374 U.S. 150 (1963)

United States v. Muniz

No. 464

Argued April 22-23, 1963

Decided June 17, 1963

374 U.S. 150




A federal prisoner can sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act to recover damages from the United States for personal injuries sustained during confinement in a federal prison and resulting from the negligence of a government employee. Feres v. United States,340 U. S. 135, distinguished. Pp. 374 U. S. 150-166.

305 F.2d 253, 285, affirmed.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a person can sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act [Footnote 1] to recover damages from the United States Government for personal injuries sustained during confinement in a federal prison, by reason of the negligence of a government employee. For reasons to be developed below, we hold that such suits are within the purview of the Act.

This litigation, brought here by the Government as a single case, arises from two separate suits for personal injuries brought by respondents Henry Winston and Carlos Muniz in the United States District Court for the

Page 374 U. S. 151

Southern District of New York. Both sought damages for personal injuries suffered while they were confined in federal prisons. The district judge granted the Government's motions to dismiss in both cases on the ground that such suits were not permitted by the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed, four judges dissenting. 305 F.2d 264, 287. [Footnote 2] Because the decision below involves an important question in the construction of the Federal Tort Claims Act, and because two Courts of Appeals had previously reached a contrary result, [Footnote 3] we granted certiorari. 371 U.S. 919.

Winston alleged that, in April, 1959, while he was confined in the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, he began suffering dizziness, loss of balance, and difficulty with his vision. Upon Winston's initial complaint, the prison medical officer's diagnosis was borderline hypertension; the treatment, a reduction in weight. Winston's symptoms nevertheless recurred with increasing severity over the next nine months; he was unable to keep his balance and fell frequently. He also began to suffer periodic loss of vision. Despite repeated complaints to the prison officers, Winston was given no further treatment, except some dramamine for his dizziness. In January, 1960, Winston's attorney became alarmed by his condition, and had him examined by a consulting physician. In February, 1960, an operation successfully removed the benign brain tumor which had caused Winston's difficulties, but his sight could not be saved.

Page 374 U. S. 152

Winston alleged that the negligence of the prison employees was responsible for the delay in diagnosis and removal of the tumor and caused his blindness.

Respondent Muniz alleged that he was, in August, 1959, a prisoner in a federal correctional institution in Danbury, Connecticut. On the afternoon of August 24, Muniz was outside one of the institution's dormitories when he was struck by an inmate, and then pursued by 12 inmates into another dormitory. A prison guard, apparently choosing to confine the altercation instead of interceding, locked the dormitory. The 12 inmates who had chased Muniz into the dormitory set upon him, beating him with chairs and sticks until he was unconscious. Muniz sustained a fractured skull and ultimately lost the vision of his right eye. He alleged that the prison officials were negligent in failing to provide enough guards to prevent the assaults leading to his injuries, and in letting prisoners, some of whom were mentally abnormal, intermingle without adequate supervision.

Whether respondents are entitled to maintain these suits requires us to determine what Congress intended when it passed the Federal Tort Claims Act in 1946. This question would not appear at first glance to pose serious difficulty. Congress used neither intricate nor restrictive language in waiving the Government's sovereign immunity. It gave the District Courts jurisdiction

"of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages, . . . for . . . personal injury . . . 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."

28 U.S.C. § 1346(b).

Page 374 U. S. 153

The Act also provides that the

"United States shall be 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. Congress qualified this general waiver of immunity in 28 U.S.C. § 2680 by excepting from the Act claims arising from certain government activity, such as transmission of postal matter, assessment of taxes, imposition of a quarantine, or operation of the Panama Canal. None of the exceptions precludes suit against the Government by federal prisoners for injuries sustained in prison. So far as it appears from the face of the Act, Congress has clearly consented to suits such as those involved in the case at bar. Whether a claim could be made out would depend upon whether a private individual under like circumstances would be liable under state law, but prisoners are at least not prohibited from suing. Since a number of lower courts have nevertheless reached a contrary conclusion, [Footnote 4] largely in reliance upon our decision in Feres v. United States,340 U. S. 135, we deem it appropriate to make a more detailed investigation into the intent of Congress.

An examination of the legislative history of the Act reinforces our conclusion that Congress intended to permit such suits. For a number of reasons, it appears that Congress was well aware of claims by federal prisoners,

Page 374 U. S. 154

and that its failure to exclude them from the provisions of the Act in 28 U.S.C. § 2680 was deliberate. First, the Federal Tort Claims Act, as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, [Footnote 5] was designed not only to avoid injustice to those having meritorious claims hitherto barred by sovereign immunity, but to eliminate the burden on Congress of investigating and passing upon private bills seeking individual relief. See Dalehite v. United States,346 U. S. 15, 346 U. S. 24-25; Feres v. United States,340 U. S. 135, 340 U. S. 139-140. [Footnote 6] The task of screening these bills was substantial. See, e.g., 74 Cong.Rec. 6868. Private claim bills introduced in the Sixty-eighth through the Seventy-eighth Congresses averaged 2,000 or more per Congress, roughly 20% of which were enacted. H.R.Rep. No. 1287, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. Among the private claim bills were a number submitted on behalf of federal prisoners, of which, between 1935 and 1946, Congress passed 21. [Footnote 7] The much larger number of private bills that must have been introduced were therefore among those adding to Congress' burdens. In these circumstances, it cannot be assumed that Congress was unaware of their presence.

Page 374 U. S. 155

A second indication that Congress was conscious of claims by federal prisoners is found in the prior versions of the Act. Efforts to permit tort suits against the Government began in 1925 with the introduction of H.R. 12178, 68th Cong., 2d Sess. [Footnote 8] Thereafter, at least one bill was introduced in every Congress, with the exception of the Seventy-fifth, until the present Act was passed by the Seventy-ninth Congress in 1946. Though the provisions of these bills underwent change during the intervening 21 years, the similarities are noteworthy. With the amendment of S. 1912 in the Sixty-ninth Congress, First Session, for example, came the first specific exceptions to the general waiver of sovereign immunity. Two of those exceptions, relating to postal matters and taxation, were cast in language virtually identical to that used in the Act ultimately passed 20 years later. And, as exceptions were added over the years, most relieved the Government from liability in the same circumstances as the present Act. Only a few exceptions were at one time proposed and later dropped, without counterpart in the present Act. [Footnote 9] One such exception related to claims by federal

Page 374 U. S. 156

prisoners. Six of the 31 bills introduced in Congress between 1925 and 1946 either barred prisoners from suing while in federal prison or precluded suit upon any claim for injury to or death of a prisoner. [Footnote 10] That such an exception was absent from the Act itself is significant in view of the consistent course of development of the bills proposed over the years and the marked reliance by each succeeding Congress upon the language of the earlier bills. We therefore feel that the want of an exception for prisoners' claims reflects a deliberate choice, rather than an inadvertent omission.

Finally, the Report of the House Committee on the Judiciary made explicit reference to the laws of four States, which had relaxed, to differing degrees, the rule

Page 374 U. S. 157

of sovereign immunity. [Footnote 11] H.R.Rep. No. 1287, 79th Cong., 1st Sess. The report noted that such "legislation does not appear to have had any detrimental or undesirable effect." Id. at 3. [Footnote 12] In one of those four States, New York, it was well settled by 1946 that persons could recover for injuries sustained in prison. [Footnote 13] Congressional

Page 374 U. S. 158

equanimity in the face of such liability further strengthens the conclusion that Congress intended to permit suits by federal prisoners.

Considering the plain import of the statutory language, the number of prisoners' claims among the individual applications for private bills leading to the passage of the Federal Tort Claims Act, the frequent mention of a prisoner claims exception in proposed bills, and the reference, among others, to New York law, which permitted recovery by prisoners, we believe it is clear that Congress intended to waive sovereign immunity in cases arising from prisoners' claims. [Footnote 14]

Page 374 U. S. 159

The Government argues nevertheless that we should imply an exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. For one thing, the Government urges that our decision in Feres v. United States,340 U. S. 135, controls. For another, it maintains that the impact of liability upon prison discipline would so seriously impair the administration of our prisons that Congress could not have intended such an "extreme" result.

The Court held in Feres v. United States that a soldier could not sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act for injuries which "arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service." 340 U.S. at 340 U. S. 146. Among the principal reasons articulated for doing so were: (1) the absence of an analogous or parallel liability, on the part of either an individual or a State; no individual has power to mobilize a militia, no State had been held liable to its militiamen; (2) the presence of a comprehensive compensation system for service personnel; (3) the dearth of private bills from the military; (4) the distinctly federal relationship of the soldier to his superiors and the Government, which should not be disturbed by state laws; and (5) the variations in state law to which soldiers would be subjected, involuntarily, since they have no choice in where they go. Although we find no occasion to question Feres, so far as military claims are concerned, the reasons for that decision are not compelling here.

First, the Government's liability is no longer restricted to circumstances in which government bodies have traditionally been responsible for misconduct of their employees. The Act extends to novel and unprecedented forms of liability as well. Indian Towing Co. v. United States,350 U. S. 61; Rayonier, Inc., v. United States,352 U. S. 315. And in any event, an analogous form of liability exists. A number of States have allowed prisoners to recover from their jailers for negligently caused

Page 374 U. S. 160

injuries, [Footnote 15] and several States have allowed such recovery against themselves. [Footnote 16]

Second, the presence of a compensation system, persuasive in Feres, does not of necessity preclude a suit for negligence. In United States v. Brown,348 U. S. 110, a veteran sought damages for negligent treatment in a Veterans Administration Hospital aggravating a service-incurred injury. The veteran received additional compensation for the aggravation of the injury, even though he was no longer on active duty. The Court nonetheless held that he could bring suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Also, the compensation system in effect for prisoners in 1946 was not comprehensive. It provided compensation only for injuries incurred while engaged in prison industries. Neither Winston nor Muniz would have been covered. [Footnote 17]

Page 374 U. S. 161

Third, private bills were never a problem in the military, Feres v. United States,340 U. S. 135, 340 U. S. 140, as Congress might have thought them to be in the case of prisoners. [Footnote 18]

Admittedly, the remaining reasons for the decision in Feres, flowing from the impact of state law upon a federal establishment, could have relevance to the prisons, as well as the armed forces. The variations in state law may to some extent hamper uniform administration of federal prisons, as it was feared they would hamper the military. And the prisoners' opportunities to recover may be affected by differences in state law over which they have no control, a position shared by service personnel whose location is determined by government order, rather than personal volition. So far as uniformity of operation is concerned, however, we have been given few concrete examples of how variations in personal injury law would impair the prison system. [Footnote 19] We are told not that the Government will be judged under too high a standard, but under too many. This seems more a matter of conjecture than of reality. The published decisions in which prisoners have sought damages have related more to the precautions necessary to protect a kitchen worker from getting steel wool in his fingers, [Footnote 20] to protect a prisoner from an exploding emery wheel, [Footnote 21] or to protect a prisoner

Page 374 U. S. 162

from falling off a ladder, [Footnote 22] than to some delicate matter of prison administration. Even a matter such as improper medical treatment can be judged under the varying state laws of malpractice without violent dislocation of prison routine. Cf. Panella v. United States, 216 F.2d 622 (C.A.2d Cir.). Without more definite indication of the risks of harm from diversity, we conclude that the prison system will not be disrupted by the application of Connecticut law in one case and Indiana law in another to decide whether the Government should be liable to a prisoner for the negligence of its employees. Finally, though the Government expresses some concern that the nonuniform right to recover will prejudice prisoners, it nonetheless seems clear that no recovery would prejudice them even more.

In the last analysis, Feres seems best explained by the

"peculiar and special relationship of the soldier to his superiors, the effects of the maintenance of such suits on discipline, and the extreme results that might obtain if suits under the Tort Claims Act were allowed for negligent orders given or negligent acts committed in the course of military duty. . . ."

United States v. Brown,348 U. S. 110, 348 U. S. 112.

We also are reluctant to believe that the possible abuses stemming from prisoners' suits are so serious that all chance of recovery should be denied. It is possible, as the Government suggests, that frivolous suits will be brought, designed only to harass or, more sinister, discover details of prison security useful in planning an escape. And it is possible that the Government will be subjected to the burden of pretrial preparation, discovery, and trial even though it prevails on the merits. This seems an inescapable concomitant of any form of liability.

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