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

  • A number of people drowned in separate accidents at reservoirs in Arkansas and Louisiana when they got sucked into flood control dams built by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
    • They were sucked into the floodgates when the gates were opened by USACE workers.
  • A number of separate tort claims against USACE were brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946.
    • The Federal Tort Claims Act allows suits against the Federal government for negligence.
  • The Trial Court in Arkansas found that although USACE willfully and maliciously failed to warn of a known danger, the USACE was immune from damages under the Mississippi Flood Control Act of 1928 (33 U.S.C. 702c), which states that "no 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.
    • USACE had argued that since the reservoirs were designed to stop floods, all of the water in them was 'flood water' and therefore they were covered under the immunity Statute.
    • The key words in this Statute were any and damage.
  • The Trial Court in Louisiana came to a similar decision. Both plaintiffs appealed.
  • The Appellate Court consolidated the cases.
  • The Appellate Court reversed the decision. USACE appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that that Congress intended 33 U.S.C. 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.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court and found that 33 U.S.C. 702c shields USACE from liability.
    • The US Supreme Court found that, on its face, the language of 33 U.S.C. 702c covers the accidents at issue.
      • The Court found that 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.
      • The language "any damage" and "liability of any kind" undercuts a narrow construction.
      • The words "flood" and "flood waters" do not create any uncertainty in the context of these accidents.
    • The Court looked to the legislative history of 33 U.S.C. 702c and found no ambiguity or contradiction.
    • The Court looked to the legislative history and found that the legislative history does not support construing 33 U.S.C. 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.
    • The Court was not unsympathetic to the claims, but felt that their hands were tied by the language of the Statute:
      • "As the facts in this case demonstrate, one can well understand why the Court of Appeals sought to find a principled way to hold the Government responsible for its concededly negligent conduct. But our role is to effectuate Congress' intent, and Congress rarely speaks more plainly than it has in the provision we apply here. If that provision is to be changed, it should be by Congress and not by this Court. We therefore follow the plain language of 702c, a section of the 1928 Act that received careful consideration by Congress and that has remained unchanged for nearly 60 years, and hold that the Federal Government is immune from suit in this type of case."
  • The Mississippi Flood Control Act was probably written for the limited purpose of insulating the USACE from damages if they have to purposely flood some land as part of a flood control scheme. It was probably not written to insulate USACE from liability for drowning waterskiers. Congress probably didn't even consider the issue of waterskiers in 1928.