The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to allow families to sue the government for the accidental deaths of off-duty servicemen, even though federal law specifically authorizes such lawsuits.
The justices turned down an appeal by the families of three servicemen who were killed in an auto accident after visiting Disneyland in 1981.
The three were riding in a military van driven by an Army sergeant. The van overturned and burned along Interstate 15 near Barstow, Calif. The families filed a claim against the government, contending that the military was responsible for the accident.
They based their claim on a 1946 law in which Congress said that any person may sue the federal government for a “personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act of any employee of the government.” The only exceptions cited in the law were for “combatant activities of the military . . . during time of war” or servicemen injured or killed in a foreign country.
Despite the language of the law, the Supreme Court has long held that service personnel may not sue the government for their injuries, even if they had nothing to do with combat or war. Under the so-called Feres doctrine, the government may not be sued by military personnel for any activity that is “incident to service.”
In the case of the three servicemen who visited Disneyland, U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts of Los Angeles ruled that “recreational activities sponsored by the armed forces are activities incident to service.” The three had been stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.
Because the trip was linked to military activity, Judge Letts dismissed the families’ claim without a trial in 1988. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in June, and the families appealed the case (Sonnenberg vs. U.S., 90-539) to the Supreme Court.
The Feres doctrine has been widely condemned by legal experts and even by the justices themselves. In 1987, Justice Antonin Scalia called the rule “clearly wrong” because the law says nothing about an exception for servicemen during peacetime. In a dissent joined by three others, Scalia said that the Feres rule should be overturned.
An attorney who appealed the case to the Supreme Court said that she had hoped new Justices David H. Souter and Anthony M. Kennedy would provide a fifth vote to overturn the Feres doctrine.
“There is no valid reason to deny compensation just because a person chose to serve his country,” said attorney Victoria J. De Goff of Berkeley, Calif. She urged the justices to either scrap the Feres doctrine or limit it so that claims may be filed if off-duty servicemen are injured or killed as a result of government negligence.
The government has argued that, because military personnel are provided medical care if they are injured and death benefits if they die, they are fairly compensated for accidents.
Without comment Tuesday, the justices dismissed the appeal.