United States v. James
478 U.S. 597 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. James, 478 U.S. 597 (1986)

United States v. James

No. 85-434

Argued April 21, 1986

Decided July 2, 1986

478 U.S. 597

Syllabus

This litigation arose from serious accidents that occurred in the reservoirs of federal flood control projects in Arkansas and Louisiana. In both accidents, recreational users (water-skiers in Arkansas and a fisherman in Louisiana) of the reservoirs were injured or drowned when they were swept through retaining structures after those structures were opened by the United States Corps of Engineers to control flooding. Separate actions were brought in Federal District Court against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act. In the Arkansas case, the court held that, although Government agents had willfully and maliciously failed to warn of a known danger, the Government was immune from damages under 33 U.S.C. § 702c, which provides in part that "[n]o liability of any kind shall attach to or rest upon the United States for any damage from or by floods or flood waters at any place." In the Louisiana case, the court similarly granted summary judgment for the United States despite the Government's concession that it negligently failed to warn of the danger from the current caused by open gates. In a consolidated appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgments, holding that Congress intended § 702c to immunize the Government from liability for damage resulting directly from construction of flood control projects and for flooding caused by factors beyond the Government's control, but had not intended to shield the negligent or wrongful acts of Government employees either in the construction or continued operation of flood control projects, including the failure to warn the public of hazards to their use of reservoirs.

Held: Section 702c bars recovery against the Government in these cases. Pp. 478 U. S. 604-612.

(a) On its face, § 702c's language covers the accidents at issue. The ordinary meaning of the word "damage" covers injury to both property and person, and cannot be considered ambiguous in that it might refer only to damage to property. Moreover, the language "any damage" and "liability of any kind" undercuts a narrow construction. Nor do the words "flood" and "flood waters" create any uncertainty in the context of these accidents. Those words apply to all waters contained in or carried through a federal flood control project for purposes of or related to flood

Page 478 U. S. 598

control, as well as to waters that such projects cannot control. The waters here clearly fall within the statute's ambit. Pp. 478 U. S. 604-605.

(b) The statute's legislative history fully supports attributing to its unambiguous words their ordinary meaning. Pp. 478 U. S. 606-608.

(c) There is little in the legislative history or otherwise to support the argument that § 702c was meant to bar only claims against the Government for damage to property acquired under § 702c's proviso (authorizing purchase of interests in certain properties bordering the Mississippi River) and under § 702d (authorizing purchase of "flowage rights"), and thus would allow recovery for damages to persons or property not connected with these acquisitions. Nor is there any merit to the argument that, even if § 702c is intended to grant immunity in connection with flood control projects, the Government is not entitled to immunity here because the injuries arose from Government employees' alleged mismanagement of recreational activities unrelated to flood control. The manner in which to convey warnings, including the negligent failure to do so, is part of the "management" of a flood control project. Finally, the legislative history does not support construing § 702c as immunizing the Government from liability only for property damage directly resulting from construction of flood control projects, but rather indicates Congress' intention to protect the Government from any liability for damages that might arise out of flood control. Pp. 478 U. S. 608-612.

760 F.2d 590, reversed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 478 U. S. 612.

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