Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U. S. C. §§ 1346(b), 1402(b), 2401(b), 2671-2680 (1988 ed. and Supp. II), applies to tortious acts or omissions occurring in Antarctica, a sovereignless region without civil tort law of its own.
Petitioner Sandra Jean Smith is the widow of John Emmett Smith and the duly appointed representative of his estate.
Petitioner filed this wrongful-death action against the United States under the FTCA in the District Court for the District of Oregon, the district where she resides. Petitioner alleged that the United States was negligent in failing to provide adequate warning of the dangers posed by crevasses in areas beyond the marked paths. It is undisputed that petitioner's claim is based exclusively on acts or omissions occurring in Antarctica. Upon the motion of the United States, the District Court dismissed petitioner's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, 702 F.Supp. 1480 (1989), holding that her claim was barred by 28 U. S. C. § 2680(k), the foreign-country exception. Section 2680(k) precludes the exercise of jurisdiction over "[a]ny claim arising in a foreign country."
The Court of Appeals affirmed, 953 F.2d 1116 (CA9 1991). It noted that the term "foreign country" admits of multiple interpretations, and thus looked to the language and structure of the FTCA as a whole to determine whether Antarctica is a "foreign country" within the meaning of the statute. Adopting the analysis and conclusion of then-Judge Scalia, see Beattie v. United States, 244 U. S. App. D. C. 70, 85-109, 756 F.2d 91, 106-130 (1984) (Scalia, J., dissenting), the Court
Petitioner argues that the scope of the foreign-country exception turns on whether the United States has recognized the legitimacy of another nation's sovereign claim over the foreign land. Otherwise, she contends, the land isnot a "country" for purposes of the FTCA. Petitioner points out that the United States does not recognize the validity of other nations' claims to portions of Antarctica. She asserts, moreover, that this construction of the term "foreign country" is most consistent with the purpose underlying the foreign-country exception. According to petitioner, Congress enacted the foreign-country exception in order to insulate the United States from tort liability imposed pursuant to foreign law. Because Antarctica has no law of itsown, petitioner claims that conventional choice-of-law rules control and require the application of Oregon law, the law of her domicil. Thus, petitioner concludes, the rationale for the foreign-country exception would not be compromised by the exercise of jurisdiction here, since the United States
Petitioner's argument for governmental liability here faces significant obstacles in addition to the foreign-country exception, but we turn first to the language of that proviso. It states that the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to "[a]ny claim arising in a foreign country." 28 U. S. C. § 2680(k). Though the FTCA offers no definition of "country," the commonsense meaning of the term undermines petitioner's attempt to equate it with "sovereign state." The first dictionary definition of "country" is simply "[a] region or tract of land." Webster's New International Dictionary 609 (2d ed. 1945). To be sure, this is not the only possible interpretation of the term, and it is therefore appropriate to examine other parts of the statute before making a final determination. But the ordinary meaning of the language itself, we think, includes Antarctica, even though it has no recognized government.
Our construction of the term "foreign country" draws support from the language of § 1346(b), "[t]he principal provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act." Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 6 (1962). That section waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for certain torts committed by federal employees "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred. " 28 U. S. C. § 1346(b) (emphasis added). We have construed § 1346(b) in determining what law should apply in actions brought under the FTCA. See Richards, supra. But by its terms the section is more than a choiceof-law provision: It delineates the scope of the United States' waiver of sovereign immunity. If Antarctica were not a "foreign country," and for that reason included within the FTCA's coverage, § 1346(b) would instruct courts to look to the law of a place that has no law in order to determine the
Section 1346(b) is not, however, the only FTCA provision that contradicts petitioner's interpretation of the foreigncountry exception. The statute's venue provision, § 1402(b), provides that claims under the FTCA may be brought "only in the judicial district where the plaintiff resides or wherein the act or omission complained of occurred." Because no federal judicial district encompasses Antarctica, petitioner's interpretation of the FTCA would lead to yet another anomalous result: The FTCA would establish jurisdiction for all tort claims against the United States arising in Antarctica, but no venue would exist unless the claimant happened to reside in the United States.
Our decisions interpreting the FTCA contain varying statements as to how it should be construed. See, e. g., United States v. Yellow Cab Co., 340 U.S. 543, 547 (1951); Dalehite v. United States, 346 U.S. 15, 31 (1953); United States v. Orleans, 425 U.S. 807, 813 (1976); Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848, 853, n. 9 (1984). See also United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U.S. 30, 34 (1992). A recent statement of this sort, and the one to which we now adhere, is found in United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117-118 (1979) (citations omitted): "We should also have in mind that the Act waives the immunity of the United States and that. . . we should not take it upon ourselves to extend the waiver beyond that which Congress intended. Neither, however, should we assume the authority to narrow the waiver that Congress intended." Reading the foreign-country exception to the FTCA to exclude torts committed in Antarctica accords with this canon of construction.
Lastly, the presumption against extraterritorial application of United States statutes requires that any lingering doubt regarding the reach of the FTCA be resolved against
For all of these reasons, we hold that the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to tort claims arising in Antarctica. Some of these reasons are based on the language and structure of the statute itself; others are based on presumptions as to extraterritorial application of Acts of Congress and as to waivers of sovereign immunity. We
Justice Stevens, dissenting.
In my opinion the Court's decision to grant certiorari in this case was a wise exercise of its discretion. The question whether the United States should be held responsible for the tortious conduct of its agents in the vast "sovereignless region" of Antarctica, ante, at 198, is profoundly important, not only because its answer identifies the character of our concern about ordinary justice, but also because Antarctica is just one of three vast sovereignless places where the negligence of federal agents may cause death or physical injury. The negligence that is alleged in this case will surely have its parallels in outer space as our astronauts continue their explorations of ungoverned regions far beyond the jurisdictional boundaries that were familiar to the Congress that enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in 1946. Moreover, our jurisprudence relating to negligence of federal agents on the sovereignless high seas points unerringly to the correct disposition of this case. Unfortunately, the Court has ignored that jurisprudence in its parsimonious construction of the FTCA's "sweeping" waiver of sovereign immunity.
In theory the territorial limits on the consent to sue the United States for the torts of its agents might be defined in four ways: (1) there is no such limit; (2) territory subject to
The FTCA includes both a broad grant of jurisdiction to the federal courts in § 1346(b)
Indeed, it was the enactment of the FTCA in 1946 that first subjected the United States to liability for maritime negligence claims that could not be maintained under either the Suits in Admiralty Act or the Public Vessels Act,
In 1960, Congress amended the Suits in Admiralty Act so as to bring all maritime torts asserted against the United States, including those arising under the DOHSA, within the purview of the Suits in Admiralty Act and thus outside the waiver of sovereign immunity in the FTCA. See United States v. United Continental Tuna Corp., 425 U.S. 164, 176, n. 14 (1976). There can be no disputing the fact, however, that at the time it was enacted, the FTCA waiver extended to the sovereignless reaches of the high seas. Since the geographic scope of that waiver has never been amended, the
That the 79th Congress intended the waiver of sovereign immunity in the FTCA to extend to the high seas does not, of course, answer the question whether that waiver extends to the sovereignless region of Antarctica. It does, however, undermine one premise of the Court's analysis: that the presumption against the extraterritorial application of federal statutes supports its narrow construction of the geographic reach of the FTCA. As the Court itself acknowledges, see ante, at 204, that presumption operates "unless a contrary intent appears." Here, the contrary intent is unmistakable. The same Congress that enacted the "foreign country" exception to the broad waiver of sovereign immunity in § 2674 subjected the United States to claims for wrongful death and injury arising well beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. The presumption against extraterritorial application of federal statutes simply has no bearing on this case.
The Government, therefore, may not prevail unless Antarctica is a "foreign country" within the meaning of the exception in subsection (k). Properly, in my view, the Court inquires as to how we are to construe this exception to the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity. Ante, at 203. Instead of answering that question, however, the Court cites a nebulous statement in United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117-118 (1979), and simply asserts that construing the foreign-country exception so as to deny recovery to this petitioner somehow accords with congressional intent. Ante, at 203.
I had thought that canons of statutory construction were tools to be used to divine congressional intent, not empty phrases used to ratify whatever result is desired in a particular case. In any event, I would answer the question that
Even without that rule of construction, we should favor the interpretation of the term that the Court has previously endorsed. Referring specifically to the term as used in the FTCA, we stated: "We know of no more accurate phrase in common English usage than `foreign country' to denote territory subject to the sovereignty of another nation." United States v. Spelar, 338 U.S. 217, 219 (1949). That interpretation is consistent with a statutory scheme that imposes tort liability on the Government "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances," see n. 6, supra. As we explained in Spelar: "[T]hough Congress was ready to lay aside a great portion of the sovereign's ancient and unquestioned immunity from suit, it was unwilling to subject the United States to liabilities depending upon the laws of a foreign power." 338 U. S., at 221. Thus, the narrow interpretation of the term "foreign
The Court seeks to buttress its interpretation of the "foreign country" exception by returning to the language of the jurisdictional grant in § 1346(b). As I have noted, federal courts have jurisdiction of civil claims against the United States "for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred."
Although the words the Court has italicized indicate that Congress may not have actually thought about sovereignless regions, they surely do not support the Court's conclusion.
The relevant substantive law in this case is the law of the State of Oregon, where petitioner resides. As was well settled at English common law before our Republic was founded, a nation's personal sovereignty over its own citizens may support the exercise of civil jurisdiction in transitory actions arising in places not subject to any sovereign. Mostyn v. Fabrigas, 98 Eng. Rep. 1021, 1032 (K. B. 1774). See also Dutton v. Howell, 1 Eng. Rep. 17, 21 (H. L. 1693). This doctrine of personal sovereignty is well recognized in our cases. As Justice Holmes explained in American Banana Co. v. United Fruit Co., 213 U.S. 347 (1909):
Surely the State of Oregon, the forum State, has a substantial interest in applying its civil tort law to a case involving the allegedly wrongful death of the spouse of one of its residents. Certainly no other State has an interest in applying its law to these facts. Moreover, application of Oregon's substantive law would in no way conflict with an Act of Congress because Congress has expressly subjected the United States to the laws of the various States for torts committed by the United States and its agents. It is thus perfectly clear that were the defendant in this case a private party, there would be law to apply to determine that party's liability to petitioner. Given the plain language of § 2674, I see no basis for the Court's refusal to follow the statutory command and hold the United States "liable . . . in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances."
Petitioner's action was filed "in the judicial district where the plaintiff resides," as § 1402(b) authorizes; there is, therefore, no objection to venue in this case. Because that provision would not provide a forum for a comparable action brought by a nonresident alien, the statute contains an omission that is no stranger to our law. In our opinion in Brunette Machine Works, Ltd. v. Kockum Industries, Inc., 406 U.S. 706, 710, n. 8 (1972), we identified examples of "cases in which the federal courts have jurisdiction but there is no district in which venue is proper" and stated that "in construing venue statutes it is reasonable to prefer the construction that avoids leaving such a gap." (Emphasis added.) Neither in that case nor in any other did we suggest that a venue gap should be avoided by adopting a narrow construction of either a jurisdictional grant or the scope of a federal cause of action. Yet that is the Court's perverse solution to the narrow venue gap in the FTCA.
Because a hypothetical handful of nonresident aliens may have no forum in which to seek relief for torts committed by federal agents in outer space or in Antarctica, the Court decides that the scope of the remedy itself should be narrowly construed. This anomalous conclusion surely derives no support whatsoever from the basic decision to include aliens as well as citizens within the protection of the statute, particularly since the overwhelming majority of aliens who may have occasion to invoke the FTCA are surely residents. As Judge Fletcher accurately observed in her dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals:
Indeed, given that the choice is between imposing individual liability on federal agents for torts committed in the course of their employment, on the one hand, or holding their employer responsible, on the other hand, the amendment to the FTCA adopted by Congress in 1988 sheds more light on the issue presented in this case than the Court's unfounded speculation about congressional intent. The congressional findings explaining the decision to immunize federal employees from personal liability for negligence in the performance of their duties indicate that Congress recognizes both the practical value and the justice of a generous interpretation of the FTCA.
The wisdom that prompted the Court's grant of certiorari is not reflected in its interpretation of the 1946 Act. Rather, it reflects a vision that would exclude electronic eavesdropping from the coverage of the Fourth Amendment and satellites from the coverage of the Commerce Clause. The international community includes sovereignless places but no
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"(k) Any claim arising in a foreign country." 28 U. S. C. § 2680(k).
"Subject to the provisions of chapter 171 of this title, the district courts, together with the United States District Court for the District of the Canal Zone and the District Court of the Virgin Islands, shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions on claims against the United States, for money damages, accruing on and after January 1, 1945, for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, ifa private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred."
"The United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages."
"In argument before a number of District Courts and Courts of Appeals, the Government relied upon the doctrine that statutes waiving sovereign immunity must be strictly construed. We think that the congressional attitude in passing the Tort Claims Act ismore accurately reflected by Judge Cardozo's statement . . . : `The exemption of the sovereign from suit involves hardship enough where consent has been withheld. We are not to add to its rigor by refinement of construction where consent has been announced.' " Ibid. (quoting Anderson v. Hayes Construction Co., 243 N.Y. 140, 147, 153 N. E. 28, 29-30 (1926)).
"[T]he bare fact of the parties being outside the territory [of the United States] in a place belonging to no other sovereign would not limit the authority of the State, as accepted by civilized theory. No one doubts the power of England or France to govern their own ships upon the high seas." The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398, 403 (1907).
"(1) For more than 40 years the Federal Tort Claims Act has been the legal mechanism for compensating persons injured by negligent or wrongful acts of Federal employees committed within the scope of their employment.
"(2) The United States, through the Federal Tort Claims Act, is responsible to injured persons for the common law torts of its employees in the same manner in which the common law historically has recognized the responsibility of an employer for torts committed by its employees within the scope of their employment.
"(3) Because Federal employees for many years have been protected from personal common law tort liability by a broad based immunity, the Federal Tort Claims Act has served as the sole means for compensating persons injured by the tortious conduct of Federal employees.
"(4) Recent judicial decisions, and particularly the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Westfall v. Erwin, have seriously eroded the common law tort immunity previously available to Federal employees.
"(5) This erosion of immunity of Federal employees from common law tort liability has created an immediate crisis involving the prospect of personal liability and the threat of protracted personal tort litigation for the entire Federal workforce.
"(6) The prospect of such liability will seriously undermine the morale and well being of Federal employees, impede the ability of agencies to carry out their missions, and diminish the vitality of the Federal Tort Claims Act as the proper remedy for Federal employees torts." § 2(a), 102 Stat. 4563, 28 U. S. C. § 2671 note.