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Stencel Aero Engineering Corp. v. United States, 431 U.S. 666 (1977)

Stencel Aero Engineering Corp. v. United States

No. 76-321

Argued March 22, 1977

Decided June 9, 1977

431 U.S. 666


A National Guard officer was permanently injured when the ejection system of his fighter aircraft malfunctioned during a midair emergency. Although he was awarded a lifetime pension under the Veterans' Benefits Act for the injury, he brought a damages suit against, inter alia, the United States and petitioner, which had manufactured the ejection system pursuant to Government specifications and with components furnished by the Government. The serviceman claimed that the ejection system had malfunctioned as a result of the defendants' individual and joint negligence. Petitioner cross-claimed against the United States, alleging that any malfunction in the system was due to faulty Government specifications and components. The District Court granted the Government's motions for summary judgment against the officer and for dismissal of petitioner's cross-claim, on the ground that Feres v. United States, 340 U. S. 135 (wherein it was held that an on-duty serviceman injured because of Government officials' negligence may not recover against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act), barred both the officer's claim and petitioner's claim.

Held: Petitioner's third-party indemnity claim cannot be maintained. Feres v. United States, supra. The right of a third party to recover in an indemnity action against the United States recognized in United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 340 U. S. 543, is limited by the rationale of Feres where the injured party is a serviceman. Pp. 431 U. S. 669-674.

(a) The relationship between the Government and its suppliers of ordnance is as "distinctively federal in character" as the relationship between the Government and members of its Armed Forces, and hence, if, as in Feres, it makes no sense to permit the fortuity of the situs of the alleged negligence to affect the Government's liability to a serviceman for service-connected injuries, it makes equally little sense to permit that situs to affect such liability to a Government contractor for the identical injury. P. 431 U. S. 672.

(b) The Veterans' Benefits Act provides an upper limit of liability for the Government as to service-connected injuries, and to permit petitioner's claim would circumvent such limitation. Pp. 431 U. S. 672-673.

Page 431 U. S. 667

(c) Where the case concerns an injury to a serviceman while on duty, the adverse effect upon military discipline is identical whether the action is brought by the serviceman directly or by a third party, since, in either case, the issue would be the degree of the Government agents' fault, if any, and the effect upon the serviceman's safety, and the trial would involve second-guessing military orders. P. 431 U. S. 673.

536 F.2d 765, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 431 U. S. 674.

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