Smith v. United States
507 U.S. 197

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1992

Syllabus

SMITH v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

No. 91-1538. Argued December 7, 1992-Decided March 8,1993

Mter her husband was killed in Antarctica-a sovereignless region without civil tort law of its own-while he was working for a private firm under contract to a federal agency, petitioner filed this wrongful-death action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The District Court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, holding that the claim was barred by the FTCA's foreign-country exception, which states that the statute's waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to "[a]ny claim arising in a foreign country," 28 U. S. C. § 2680(k). The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The FTCA does not apply to tortious acts or omissions occurring in Antarctica. The ordinary meaning of "foreign country" includes Antarctica, even though it has no recognized government. If this were not so, § 1346(b)-which waives sovereign immunity for certain torts committed "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable ... in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred" (emphasis added)-would have the bizarre result of instructing courts to look to the law of a place that has no law in order to determine the United States' liability. Similarly, if Antarctica were included within the FTCA's coverage, § 1402(b)-which provides that claims may be brought "only in the judicial district where the plaintiff resides or wherein the act or omission complained of occurred" -would have the anomalous result of limiting venue to cases in which the claimant happened to reside in the United States, since no federal judicial district encompasses Antarctica. This interpretation of the FTCA accords with the canon of construction that prohibits courts from either extending or narrowing the statute's sovereign immunity waiver beyond what Congress intended, United States v. Kubrick, 444 U. S. 111, 117-118, and with the presumption against extraterritorial application of United States statutes, see, e. g., EEOC v. Arabian American Oil Co., 499 U. S. 244, 248. It is unlikely that Congress, had it expressly considered the question when it passed the FTCA, would have included a desolate and extraordinarily dangerous land such as Antarctica within the statute's scope. Pp. 200-205.

953 F.2d 1116, affirmed.


198

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 205.

David J. Bederman argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Allen T. Murphy, Jr., and David Gernant.

Christopher J. Wright argued the cause for the United States. On the brief were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Gerson, Deputy Solicitor General Mahoney, and Mark B. Stern.

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U. S. C. §§ 1346(b), 1402(b), 2401(b), 2671-2680 (1988 ed. and Supp. II), applies to tortious acts or omissions occurring in Antarctica, a sovereignless region without civil tort law of its own.1 We hold that it does not.

Petitioner Sandra Jean Smith is the widow of John Emmett Smith and the duly appointed representative of his es-

1 Without indigenous human population and containing roughly onetenth of the world's land mass, Antarctica is best described as "an entire continent of disputed territory." F. Auburn, Antarctic Law and Politics 1 (1982). Seven nations-Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom-presently assert formal claims to pie-shaped portions of the continent that total about 85 percent of its expanse. Boczek, The Soviet Union and the Antarctic Regime, 78 Am. J. Int'l L. 834, 840 (1984); Hayton, The Antarctic Settlement of 1959, 54 Am. J. Int'l L. 349 (1960). The United States does not recognize other nations' claims and does not itself assert a sovereign interest in Antarctica, although it maintains a basis for such a claim. Lissitzyn, The American Position on Outer Space and Antarctica, 53 Am. J. Int'l L. 126, 128 (1959). In any event, these sovereign claims have all been suspended by the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, concluded in 1959. Antarctic Treaty, Dec. 1, 1959, [1961] 12 U. S. T. 794, T. I. A. S. No. 4780. Article IV of the treaty states that no claim may be enforced, expanded, or compromised while the treaty is in force, id., art. IV, 12 U. S. T., at 796, thus essentially freezing nations' sovereign claims as of the date of the treaty's execution.


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Full Text of Opinion

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