Dalehite v. United States,
346 U.S. 15 (1953)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15 (1953)

Dalehite v. United States

No. 308

Argued April 6-8, 1953

Decided June 8, 1953

346 U.S. 15


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

Page 346 U. S. 16

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.

Page 346 U. S. 17

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