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Feres Doctrine

Further Readings

A doctrine that bars claims against the federal government by members of the armed forces and their families for injuries arising from or in the course of activity incident to military service.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1950, in Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, 71 S. Ct. 153, 95 L. Ed. 152, that the federal government could not be held liable under the statute known as the FEDERAL TORT CLAIMS ACT (28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1291, 1346(b), (c), 1402(b), 2401(b), 2402, 2671-80) for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service. The Federal Tort Claims Act allows persons intentionally or negligently wronged by a government employee to sue the government for their injuries. The Supreme Court's decision barring suits involving injuries to members of the armed forces became known as the Feres doctrine. The doctrine remains in force, as the Supreme Court has rejected attempts to over-rule the decision.

Feres involved a suit brought by the executor of a soldier who had died when his barracks caught fire. The executor charged that the United States had been negligent in housing the soldier in barracks whose defective heating system was known to be unsafe. First, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that such a suit could be brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, which had waived the government's traditional IMMUNITY from claims in many circumstances. Noting that the statute said that "[t]he United States shall be liable … in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances" (28 U.S.C.A. § 2674), the Court concluded that the relationship between the government and members of its armed forces is "distinctively federal in character." Therefore, it would be anomalous to have the government's liability depend on the law of the state where the soldier was stationed. Second, the Court observed that in several enactments, Congress had established a "no-fault" compensation plan that provides pensions to injured members of the ARMED SERVICES.

Commenting on the Feres doctrine in United States v. Brown, 348 U.S. 110, 75 S. Ct. 141, 99 L. Ed. 139 (1954), the Court emphasized that discipline and "[t]he peculiar and special relationship of the soldier to his superiors" might be affected if suits were allowed under the Tort Claims Act "for negligent orders given or negligent acts committed in the course of military duty." This view became one of the bedrock justifications for the doctrine in the years following Brown.

The U.S. Supreme Court has stressed that the Feres doctrine "cannot be reduced to a few bright-line rules," but rather "each case must be examined in light of the [Tort Claims Act] as it has been construed in Feres and subsequent cases" (United States v. Shearer, 473 U.S. 52, 105S. Ct. 3039, 87 L. Ed. 2d 38 [1985]).

The doctrine does not bar a claim arising from an independent injury committed by the government after a soldier has been discharged (Brown). In Brown, an injury suffered by a veteran during treatment at a VETERANS ADMINISTRATION hospital for a prior injury that he had sustained during military service was not barred by Feres. The Court distinguished Brown from Feres on the ground that in Brown, the second injury did not arise from or in the course of military service.

The doctrine did apply, however, to a suit involving the death of a soldier who was off the military base on authorized leave when he was kidnapped and murdered by a fellow soldier with a known history of violence (Shearer). The mother of the murdered soldier charged that the Army had been negligent in failing to warn the other soldiers that the murderer was dangerous and in failing to restrict the murderer's movements while his discharge was being processed. The Supreme Court denied her claim under the Feres doctrine on the ground that the suit would require a civilian court to second-guess military decisions that are directly involved in the management of the armed forces. If such suits were allowed, "commanding officers would have to stand prepared to convince a civilian court of the wisdom of a wide range of military and disciplinary decisions." As a result, military discipline would suffer the detrimental effects that the Feres doctrine was designed to prevent.

The doctrine also applies to third parties seeking indemnity from the federal government. In Stencel Aero Engineering Corp. v. United States, 431 U.S. 666, 97 S. Ct. 2054, 52 L. Ed. 2d 665 (1977), an injured NATIONAL GUARD officer brought a suit against Stencel, the manufacturer of the ejection system in his fighter aircraft. Stencel then filed a cross-claim against the United States for indemnity (reimbursement for damages that it might pay to the officer), alleging that any malfunction of the ejection system was due to faulty government specifications and components. The Supreme Court held that the same reasoning that prevented a member of the armed services from recovering under the Tort Claims Act would limit a third party from recovering in an indemnity action.

The Feres doctrine was challenged in two cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1987. The doctrine had long been criticized as unfair to service members. In United States v. Johnson, 481 U.S. 681, 107 S. Ct. 2063, 95 L. Ed. 2d 648, the United States was sued for injuries sustained by a service member as the result of the NEGLIGENCE of air traffic controllers, who are civilian employees of the federal government. On a 5–4 decision, the Court reaffirmed the application of the Feres doctrine. The Court noted that civilian employees may also "play an integral role in military activities. In this circumstance, an inquiry into the civilian activities would have the same effect on military discipline as a direct inquiry into military judgments."

In United States v. Stanley, 483 U.S. 669, 107S. Ct. 3054, 97 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1987), the United States was sued not only under the Federal Tort Claims Act but also directly under the Constitution. The Court rejected this attempt to circumvent Feres. It affirmed the lower court's decision to dismiss the lawsuit because of the principles set out in the Feres decision.

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