Dolan v. Postal Service

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Opinion [Justice Kennedy]
Dissent [Justice Thomas]




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the third circuit

No. 04–848. Argued November 7, 2005—Decided February 22, 2006

Under the Postal Reorganization Act, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) applies to “tort claims arising out of [Postal Service] activities.” 39 U. S. C. §409(c). The FTCA, in turn, waives sovereign immunity in certain cases involving negligence committed by federal employees in the course of their employment, 28 U. S. C. §1346(b)(1), making the United States liable “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances,” §2674. However, the sovereign immunity bar remains as to, inter alia, “[a]ny claim arising out of the loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter.” §2680(b). Consequently, the United States may be liable if postal workers commit torts under local law, but not for claims defined by the exception. Petitioner Dolan filed an FTCA suit against the Postal Service for injuries she suffered when she tripped and fell over mail left on her porch by postal employees. The District Court dismissed the suit, and the Third Circuit affirmed, both concluding that, although the FTCA generally waives sovereign immunity as to federal employees’ torts, Dolan’s claims were barred by §2680(b)’s exception.

Held: Because the postal exception is inapplicable in this case, Dolan’s claim may go forward. This Court assumes that under the applicable state law a person injured by tripping over a package or bundle negligently left by a private party would have a cause of action for damages. The question is whether §2860(b)’s exception preserves sovereign immunity in such a case. Considered in isolation, “negligent transmission” could embrace a wide range of acts. However, interpretation of a word or phrase depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the statute’s purpose and context. Here, both context and precedent require reading the phrase so that it does not go beyond negligence causing mail to be lost or to arrive late, in damaged condition, or at the wrong address. Starting with context, “negligent transmission” follows the terms “loss” and “miscarriage,” which limit the reach of transmission. Mail is “lost” if it is destroyed or misplaced and “miscarried” if it goes to the wrong address. Since both terms refer to failings in the postal obligation to deliver mail in a timely manner to the right address, it would be odd if “negligent transmission” swept far more broadly to include injuries caused by postal employees but involving neither failure to transmit mail nor damage to its contents. This interpretation is supported by Kosak v. United States, 465 U. S. 848, where this Court noted that one of the FTCA’s purposes was to waive the Government’s immunity from liability for injuries resulting from auto accidents involving postal trucks delivering—and thus “transmitting”—the mail. Nothing in the statutory text supports a distinction between negligent driving, which the Government claims relates only circumstantially to the mail, and Dolan’s accident, which was caused by the mail itself. In both cases the postal employee acts negligently while transmitting mail. In addition, focusing on whether the mail itself caused the injury would yield anomalies, perhaps making liability turn on, e.g., whether a mail sack was empty or full. It is more likely that Congress intended to retain immunity only for injuries arising because mail either fails to arrive or arrives late, in damaged condition, or at the wrong address, since such harms are primarily identified with the Postal Service’s function of transporting mail. The Government claims that, given the Postal Service’s vast operations, Congress must have intended to insulate delivery-related torts from liability, but §2680(b)’s specificity indicates otherwise. Had Congress intended to preserve immunity for all delivery-related torts, it could have used sweeping language similar to that used in other FTCA exceptions, e.g., §2860(i). Furthermore, losses of the type for which immunity is retained under §2680(b) are at least to some degree avoidable or compensable through postal registration and insurance. The Government raises the specter of frivolous slip-and-fall claims inundating the Postal Service, but that is a risk shared by any business making home deliveries. Finally, the general rule that a sovereign immunity waiver “will be strictly construed … in favor of the sovereign,” Lane v. Peńa, 518 U. S. 187, 192, is “unhelpful” in the FTCA context, where “unduly generous interpretations of the exceptions run the risk of defeating” the central purpose of the statute, Kosak, supra, at 853, n. 9, which “waives the Government’s immunity from suit in sweeping language,” United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 340 U. S. 543, 547. Pp. 4–11.

377 F. 3d 285, reversed and remanded.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C.J., and Stevens, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Alito, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


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