In the 1987 case of United States v. Johnson, the United States Supreme Court held that the Federal Tort Claims Act does not provide a basis for the widow of a service member to file a complaint alleging negligence against the federal government.
Lieutenant Commander Horton Johnson worked as a helicopter pilot for the United States Coast Guard.
Early one morning, he was assigned to respond to a call for help from a boat lost near Hawaii. The weather was bad at the time and no one on the helicopter could see anything. As a result, Johnson requested help from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in utilizing radar services.
The helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain, and everyone on board died, including Johnson.
Johnson's wife obtained compensation for Johnson's death pursuant to the Veterans' Benefits Act. She also filed suit against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Her position was that the FAA's negligence in directing the helicopter had negligently caused the death of her husband.
The government submitted a motion to dismiss the case, asserting that because Johnson had been killed during the ordinary course of his duty in the Coast Guard, his wife was not able to file a claim.
The trial court agreed, and entered an order dismissing the case. Johnson's wife appealed the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court reversed the case, finding that although prior case law prohibited tort suits in situations where the negligence of a member of the military causes injury to another member of the military, a different situation existed when someone outside of the military was negligent.
The Eleventh Circuit noted that the Ninth Circuit was presented with a very similar case, but came to a different result. According to the court, the Ninth Circuit decision was "wrongly decided."
The government then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the case.
Several important rules of law existed at the time of this decision.
First was the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Under the doctrine, the federal government cannot be sued for the tortious acts of government employees unless the government authorizes the suit.
Second, was the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Federal Tort Claims Act is such an authorization. It allows private individuals to sue the federal government when the government engages in some kind of tortious conduct that injures the private person.
Finally, the Court was faced with a 1950 United States Supreme Court decision entitled, Feres v. United States. In that decision the Court consolidated three different cases in which members of the armed forces were injured by other military service members. Each of the cases relied on the Federal Tort Claims Act to sue the military. The Court ruled, however, that a suit by a service member for injuries sustained by another service member while on active duty could not form the basis of a claim under the Act.
The unique question in this case revolved around whether or not a service member's widow could bring a cause of action under the Act when the negligence was caused by someone outside of the military.
The Court pointed out that service members are entitled to a number of statutory benefits for injury or death, which Johnson's widow was receiving.
The Court also noted that members of the military have a unique relationship with the government unlike that with any other member of the public that could bring suit under the Act.
The Court further noted that Congress had had ample opportunity to amend the law to authorize service members to bring suit against the government. But it had not.
Ultimately, the Court was unable to distinguish any meaningful difference between this situation and one in which the injury was caused by another service member.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's decision and held in favor of the government.