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United States v. Moore

decided: October 19, 1972.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLANT,
v.
LETA MOORE



Resubmitted Under Third Circuit Rule 12(6) July 24, 1972.

Biggs and Kalodner, Circuit Judges, and Whipple, District Judge. Biggs, Circuit Judge (dissenting).

Author: Kalodner

Opinion OF THE COURT

KALODNER, Circuit Judge.

The prime question presented by this appeal is whether enforcement of the federal Medical Care Recovery Act*fn1 ("Act") is subject to the vagaries of state family immunity laws and their right-to-sue limitations.

The District Court answered the question in the affirmative in the instant action by the United States, pursuant to the provisions of the Act, to recover from the defendant Leta Moore expenses incurred when it was obliged to provide medical care for her husband, a member of the armed forces, and their three children, for injuries caused by her undisputed negligent driving.

The District Court granted summary judgment against the United States based on its conclusion "that no tort liability exists on the part of Leta Moore arising from this accident," because, in its view, Maine law, applicable here, does not permit actions for negligent tort by one spouse against the other, or by a minor child against a parent. The instant appeal followed.

The accident which is the genesis of this suit occurred on July 15, 1965 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in Fulton County, Pennsylvania. The defendant was negligently operating an automobile in which her husband and their children were passengers when she lost control of the vehicle. It crashed into a guardrail, left the highway, struck a tree and overturned, injuring its passengers. At the time the accident occurred, the defendant and her family were domiciliaries of Maine.

The United States supplied medical care to the defendant's injured husband and children, as required by law. The reasonable value of the medical care amounted to $2,290.75.

In its Memorandum Opinion, 311 F. Supp. 984, accompanying its Order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant against the United States, the District Court held that since the Moore family was domiciled in Maine when the accident occurred, Maine law was applicable to the instant action under Pennsylvania law.

It construed the Maine family immunity law as purging a spouse and parent tortfeasor of any and all liability for negligent tort.

Implicit in the District Court's stated view is a sub silentio holding that enforcement of the Medical Care Recovery Act is subject to the vagaries of state family immunity laws.

We disagree with that view.

We are of the opinion that the Medical Care Recovery Act confers on the United States an independent right of recovery which is unimpaired by the vagaries of state family immunity laws; otherwise stated, enforcement of the Act is free of the impact of right-to-sue limitations imposed by a state's family immunity laws.

We disagree, too, with the District Court's view that the Maine family immunity laws purge a spouse or parent tortfeasor of any and all tort liability. We do so because the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has expressly held that Maine's interspousal immunity law does no more than impose a "legal disability" on one spouse to sue another for negligent tort, and that such disability does not operate to " inflict injustice upon outsiders and deprive them of their legal rights." Bedell v. Reagan, 159 Me. 292, 192 A.2d 24 (1963) (emphasis supplied).*fn2

Since the prime question presented is whether enforcement of the Medical Care Recovery Act is subject to the vagaries of state family immunity laws and their right-to-sue limitations it will be accorded priority of discussion.

Relevant to its resolution is the recent holding of the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Haynes, 445 F.2d 907 (1971), that enforcement of the Act is not subject to the right-to-sue provisions of Louisiana's community property law.

In Haynes, the wife of a soldier was injured by his negligence. The Government provided her with medical care as a military dependent and then sued the husband and his insurance company*fn3 for the reasonable value of the care under the Medical Care Recovery Act. The District Court dismissed the Government's action on the ground that the defendants were free of liability because, under Louisiana's community property law the claim of an injured wife for medical expenses is a community claim which must be brought by the husband as master of the community, and that a suit by the husband against himself would be barred.

The Fifth Circuit reversed on the grounds that the Government's right of recovery under the Medical Care Recovery Act is an independent right free of "the vagaries of state law"; "the government's right is independent and is not limited by procedural bars to which others -- including Mrs. Haynes herself -- might be subject"; "moreover, the marital relations policy behind this state procedure is inapplicable to the federal government"; and "the essential element -- 'circumstances creating tort liability' -- is present." 445 F.2d at 910.

The Fifth Circuit further noted that in United States v. Standard Oil Company of California, 332 U.S. 301, 67 S. Ct. 1604, 91 L. Ed. 2067 (1947), (which led to the enactment of the Medical Care Recovery Act because of its holding that then existing federal laws did not confer a right of recovery for medical care extended to a soldier and that it was up to Congress to enact such a law), it was pointed out that the Government's right of indemnification for medical care (if needed) should " not vary in accordance with the different rulings of the several states, simply because the soldier marches or, . . . flies across state lines." 445 F.2d at 910 (emphasis supplied).

In United States v. Merrigan, 389 F.2d 21, 23-24 (1968), we held that the Medical Care Recovery Act "unmistakably confers on the government what the congressional reports describe as an ' independent right of recovery,'" and, that the Act's "remedial or procedural" provisions " are not to be construed strictly against the government, but rather in aid of the substantial right which the statute has created." (emphasis supplied). In support of the latter holding we cited Wyandotte Transportation Co. v. United States, 389 U.S. 191, 88 S. Ct. 379, 19 L. Ed. 2d 407 (1967), where it was held that when a specific interest and right has been conferred upon the United States by statute, the remedies and procedures for enforcing that right are not to be narrowly construed so as to prevent the effectuation of the policy declared by Congress.

Significantly relevant here is our holding in United States v. Gera, 409 F.2d 117, 120 (1969), that "the Government's exercise of its independent right under the Medical Care Recovery Act is free of the restraints imposed by a state statute of limitations." (emphasis supplied). It cannot reasonably be contended that a disability to sue by reason of a statute of limitations is different than a disability to sue imposed on a spouse or minor child under a state's family immunity laws.

Other circuits are in accord with Merrigan and Gera.

Merrigan was cited and followed in United States v. Housing Authority of City of Bremerton, 415 F.2d 239 (9 Cir. 1969). It was there held that the United States could maintain an action against the Housing Authority under the Medical Care Recovery Act, for medical care extended to an infant child of a serviceman, despite the circumstances that the child's parents could not sue the Housing Authority for its medical expenses by reason of their contributory negligence.

In so holding the Court said at page 241:

"All courts which have considered the question have agreed that the statute gives the United States an independent right of recovery against the tortfeasor; the United States is not merely subrogated ...


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