Fourth Circuit holds Federal Government Immune from Contribution in Third-Party Death Action
On May 6, 2011, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in Vulcan Materials v. Massiah, that the U.S. federal government is immune from a claim of contribution from a vessel owner that alleged negligence on the part of the United States Navy in conducting a nighttime training exercise in which a Navy member was killed in a collision with claimant's vessel.
On October 11, 2007, Tango-2, a government owned vessel conducting a training exercise along the James River, collided with a tug, the WILLIAM E. POOLE, owned by Vulcan Materials (Vulcan). Seaman Porter did not survive the collision. The government paid a death gratuity payment to Porter's mother and paid for the funeral and burial expenses. Vulcan filed a complaint for exoneration from, or limitation of, liability for the collision pursuant to the Limitation of Liability Act. Porter's estate answered Vulcan's complaint and submitted an admiralty claim against it alleging negligence. Vulcan then filed a third-party complaint against the United States alleging that the Navy was liable for the accident and sought contribution for any damages owed to Porter's estate. The District Court found that both the U.S. government and Vulcan were negligent and awarded $1,250,000 to Porter's estate.
The District Court granted the United States' motion to dismiss Vulcan's contribution claim and dismissed them as a party to the action. The United States argued in the District Court that Vulcan's claim was barred by the Feres-Stencel Aero doctrine, which insulates the U.S. government from liability for third-party claims seeking indemnification or contribution for damages paid to a service member injured incident to service and also bars tort claims against the United States brought by service members for injuries that occur incident to service.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court and found that the Feres-Stencel Aero doctrine applied to the facts of this case and that the U.S. federal government is not subject to a third-party suit by Vulcan for actions based on the death of a service member.
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