United States v. Muniz

374 U.S. 150, 83 S. Ct. 1850 (1963)



It is improper to limit suits by federal prisoners because of restrictive state rules of immunity. Whether a discretionary function is involved is a matter to be decided under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C.S. § 2680 (a), rather than under state rules relating to political, judicial, quasi-judicial, and ministerial functions. And the duty of care owed by the Bureau of Prisons to federal prisoners is fixed by 18 U.S.C.S. § 4042, independent of an inconsistent state rule. Discipline in the federal prisons will not be so seriously impaired that all recovery should be denied for negligently inflicted injuries; hence, recovery cannot depend upon a state's decision to the contrary. 


Two federal prisoners filed personal injury actions against the United States for violation of the Federal Tort Claims Act (the Act). The district court dismissed the actions, but the circuit court reversed. On appeal, the State argued that prisoners should be excepted from the Act because liability would impair prison discipline and result in different state remedies.


Are prisoners excepted from the Act?




The court held that the Federal Tort Claims Act applied to the prisoner's claims against the State for the negligence of its prison officials. Nothing on the face of the Act exempted prisoners from coverage under the Act. The legislative history revealed that Congress was well aware of prisoner claims when it enacted the statute. Respondent's argument that soldiers could not rely upon the Act was not analogous, given the unique relation between soldiers and their superiors and the government. The court observed that variations in state law, and thus in case outcomes, would not necessarily disrupt prison administration. Also, the government's liability was not limitless. The intentional torts of government officials, for example, were excluded from the Act. Restrictive state rules of immunity would not be allowed to limit claims by federal prisoners under the Act.

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