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Yearsley v. Ross Constr. Co.

U.S.
Jan 29, 1940
309 U.S. 18 (1940)

Summary

holding that liability for loss of property caused by a contractor acting at the direction of the federal government rests only with the government, not the contractor

Summary of this case from Kuwait Pearls Catering Co. v. Kellogg Brown & Root Servs., Inc.

Opinion

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT.

No. 156.

Argued January 3, 4, 1940. Decided January 29, 1940.

1. A contractor working for improvement of river navigation in conformity with a contract with the Government authorized by a valid Act of Congress, is not liable for injury resulting to private riparian land, even though what is so done amounts to a taking of property by the Government. P. 20. Where an agent or officer of the Government purporting to act on its behalf has been held to be liable for his conduct causing injury to another, the ground of liability has been found to be either that he exceeded his authority or that it was not validly conferred. 2. For a taking of private property in the course of authorized navigation improvement, the Government impliedly promises to pay just compensation, recoverable by suit against the United States in the Court of Claims. P. 21. 3. The remedy thus afforded is plain and adequate, and satisfies the Fifth Amendment. Payment in advance of taking is not required by the Amendment. Pp. 21, 22. 103 F.2d 589, affirmed.

CERTIORARI, 308 U.S. 538, to review the reversal of a judgment recovered by the present petitioners in an action against the respondent for damages to their riparian lands.

Mr. Robert Van Pelt, with whom Mr. Ernest B. Perry was on the brief, for petitioners.

Mr. Clay C. Rogers for respondent.

By leave of Court, Solicitor General Jackson, Assistant Attorney General Shea, and Messrs. Warner W. Gardner, Thomas Harris, and Frederick T. Johnson filed a brief on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, in support of respondent.


In this action, brought in the state court of Nebraska and removed to the federal court, petitioners sought to recover damages upon the ground that the respondent company had built dikes in the Missouri River and, using large boats with paddles and pumps to produce artificial erosion, had washed away a part of petitioners' land. Respondent alleged in defense that the work was done pursuant to a contract with the United States Government, and under the direction of the Secretary of War and the supervision of the Chief of Engineers of the United States, for the purpose of improving the navigation of the Missouri River, as authorized by an Act of Congress. Petitioners in reply alleged that the contract did not contemplate the taking of their land without just compensation and that the acts of the contractor resulted in the destruction of petitioners' property in violation of their rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.

Petitioners had judgment which the Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 103 F.2d 589. Certiorari was granted because of alleged conflict with applicable decisions of this Court. 308 U.S. 538. The Government has been permitted to appear as amicus curiae.

The Circuit Court of Appeals found that the evidence established "that two dikes built in the river above, and one dike built opposite, their (petitioners') land had diverted the channel or the current of the river from the Iowa shore to the Nebraska shore" and that as a result the "accretion land" of petitioners "to the extent of perhaps 95 acres had been eroded and carried away." There was evidence tending to show that in extending the dike opposite petitioners' land, the contractor, "apparently to keep open an adequate channel for navigation between the end of the dike and the shore," had accelerated the erosion "by using the paddle wheels of its steamboats to increase the action of the current." But there was no evidence, as the Court of Appeals said, that this "paddle washing" had done "anything more than hasten the inevitable." The Court of Appeals also found it to be undisputed "that the work which the contractor had done in the river bed was all authorized and directed by the Government of the United States for the purpose of improving the navigation of this navigable river." It is also conceded that the work thus authorized and directed by the governmental officers was performed pursuant to the Act of Congress of January 21, 1927, 44 Stat. 1010, 1013.

In that view, it is clear that if this authority to carry out the project was validly conferred, that is, if what was done was within the constitutional power of Congress, there is no liability on the part of the contractor for executing its will. See Murray's Lessee v. Hoboken Land Improvement Co., 18 How. 272, 283; Lamar v. Browne, 92 U.S. 187, 199; The Paquete Habana, 189 U.S. 453, 465. Where an agent or officer of the Government purporting to act on its behalf has been held to be liable for his conduct causing injury to another, the ground of liability has been found to be either that he exceeded his authority or that it was not validly conferred. Philadelphia Company v. Stimson, 223 U.S. 605, 619, 620. See United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 220, 221; Noble v. Union River Logging R. Co., 147 U.S. 165, 171, 172; Tindal v. Wesley, 167 U.S. 204, 222; Scranton v. Wheeler, 179 U.S. 141, 152; American School of Magnetic Healing v. McAnnulty, 187 U.S. 94, 108, 110.

Petitioners present the question whether the building of the dikes and the erosion of their land, because of the consequent diversion of the current of the river, constituted a taking of their property for which compensation must be made. We do not find it necessary to pass upon that question, for if the authorized action in this instance does constitute a taking of property for which there must be just compensation under the Fifth Amendment, the Government has impliedly promised to pay that compensation and has afforded a remedy for its recovery by a suit in the Court of Claims. 28 U.S.C. § 250. United States v. Great Falls Manufacturing Co., 112 U.S. 645, 656, 657; Great Falls Manufacturing Co. v. Attorney General, 124 U.S. 581, 600; United States v. Lynah, 188 U.S. 445, 465, 466; Tempel v. United States, 248 U.S. 121, 129, 130; Hurley v. Kincaid, 285 U.S. 95, 104, 105. "The Fifth Amendment does not entitle him [the owner] to be paid in advance of the taking" and the statute affords a plain and adequate remedy. Hurley v. Kincaid, supra. It follows that as the Government in such a case promises just compensation and provides a complete remedy, action which constitutes the taking of property is within its constitutional power and there is no ground for holding its agent liable who is simply acting under the authority thus validly conferred. The action of the agent is "the act of the government." United States v. Lynah, supra.

This principle has been applied under the statute providing compensation for the use by the Government of patented inventions without license of the owner. Act of June 25, 1910, 36 Stat. 423. In Crozier v. Krupp, 224 U.S. 290, 305, the Court said: "The adoption by the United States of the wrongful act of an officer is of course an adoption of the act when and as committed, and causes such act of the officer to be, in virtue of the statute, a rightful appropriation by the Government, for which compensation is provided." In view of later decisions limiting the scope of that statute ( Cramp Sons v. Curtis Turbine Co., 246 U.S. 28; Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. v. Simon, 246 U.S. 46), Congress amended the statute so as to insure complete compensation by the Government and thus it operated to relieve the contractor from liability of every kind "for the infringement of patents in manufacturing anything for the Government." The provision for the recovery from the United States of "entire" compensation "emphasized the exclusive and comprehensive character of the remedy provided." Richmond Screw Anchor Co. v. United States, 275 U.S. 331, 343.

So, in the case of a taking by the Government of private property for public use such as petitioners allege here, it cannot be doubted that the remedy to obtain compensation from the Government is as comprehensive as the requirement of the Constitution, and hence it excludes liability of the Government's representatives lawfully acting on its behalf in relation to the taking.

The Government contends that in this instance there has been no taking of petitioners' lands within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment. The Circuit Court of Appeals took that view, holding that petitioners had sustained merely "consequential damages from the deflection of waters by reason of structures lawfully constructed in aid of navigation." Petitioners, as we have said, combat this ruling. We do not undertake to review it or the authorities cited by the parties and the Government in that relation, for petitioners' claim, resting upon the theory that there has been a "taking," has been found untenable, and there is no contention, or basis for one, that if the contractor was acting for the Government in prosecuting its work in aid of navigation without the taking of property, the contractor would be subject to the asserted liability.

The judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals in reversing that of the District Court is affirmed but upon the grounds stated in this opinion.

Affirmed.


Summaries of

Yearsley v. Ross Constr. Co.

U.S.
Jan 29, 1940
309 U.S. 18 (1940)

holding that liability for loss of property caused by a contractor acting at the direction of the federal government rests only with the government, not the contractor

Summary of this case from Kuwait Pearls Catering Co. v. Kellogg Brown & Root Servs., Inc.

holding that a contractor directed by the federal government to construct several dikes was immune from claims arising from the resulting erosion and loss of property when the damage was allegedly caused by the dikes' existence, not the manner of their construction

Summary of this case from Brown & Gay Eng'g, Inc. v. Olivares

holding that a contractor directed by the federal government to construct several dikes was immune from claims arising from the resulting erosion and loss of property when the damage was allegedly caused by the dikes' existence, not the manner of their construction

Summary of this case from Freeman v. Am. K-9 Detection Servs., L.L.C.

finding sovereign immunity applied to defense contractor hired to improve navigation of Missouri River, under direction of the Secretary of War, as authorized by an act of Congress

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recognizing contract specification defense where contractor is an "agent or officer of the Government"

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In Yearsley v. W. A. Ross Constr. Co., 309 U.S. 18, 60 S.Ct. 413, 84 L.Ed. 554 (1940), the plaintiffs sought money damages for an alleged Takings Clause violation.

Summary of this case from Knick v. Township of Scott

In Yearsley, a landowner asserted a claim for damages against a private company whose work building dikes on the Missouri River pursuant to its contract with the Federal Government had washed away part of the plaintiff's land.

Summary of this case from Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez

In Yearsley v. W. A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18 (1940), we rejected an attempt by a landowner to hold a construction contractor liable under state law for the erosion of 95 acres caused by the contractor's work in constructing dikes for the Government.

Summary of this case from Boyle v. United Technologies Corp.

In Yearsley we barred the suit of landowners against a private Government contractor alleging that its construction of a dam eroded their land without just compensation in violation of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Summary of this case from Boyle v. United Technologies Corp.

In Yearsley, the Court, speaking through Mr. Chief Justice Hughes, went on to hold that "it cannot be doubted that the remedy to obtain compensation from the Government is as comprehensive as the requirement of the Constitution...."

Summary of this case from Regional Rail Reorganization Act Cases

applying Yearsley immunity to a claim arising under the Takings Clause of the Constitution

Summary of this case from Cunningham v. Gen. Dynamics Info. Tech., Inc.

In Yearsley, a company that built dikes on the Missouri River pursuant to a federal contract was sued for “using large boats with paddles and pumps to produce artificial erosion [that] washed away a part of petitioners' land....

Summary of this case from Cabalce v. Thomas E. Blanchard & Assocs., Inc.

In Yearsley, the Supreme Court held that a contractor who built river dikes pursuant to a contract with the U.S. government, as authorized by Congress, could not be held liable for a Fifth Amendment taking when the contractor was simply an agent acting under its validly conferred authority.

Summary of this case from Adkisson v. Jacobs Eng'g Grp., Inc.

In Yearsley, the Supreme Court emphasized that “[t]he Court of Appeals... found it to be undisputed that the work which the contractor had done... was all authorized and directed by the Government of the United States.” 309 U.S. at 20, 60 S.Ct. 413 (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Summary of this case from Metzgar v. KBR, Inc.

In Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18, 60 S.Ct. 413, 84 L.Ed. 554 (1940), we rejected an attempt by a landowner to hold a construction contractor liable under state law for the erosion of 95 acres [of land] caused by the contractor's work in constructing dikes for the Government.

Summary of this case from Bennett v. MIS Corp.

In Yearsley, a private company, carrying out a government contract, built river dikes which destroyed privately-owned land.

Summary of this case from Lion Raisins, Inc. v. U.S.

In Yearsley, the Court barred a suit for damages based on the Takings Clause against a government contractor who had built a dam that had allegedly eroded the plaintiffs' land.

Summary of this case from Carley v. Wheeled Coach

In Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18, 60 S.Ct. 413, 84 L.Ed. 554 (1940), the Supreme Court held that a contractor was not liable for the erosion of the plaintiff's waterfront property because the damage was caused by the contractor's construction of certain dikes in accordance with a contract with the government.

Summary of this case from Bynum v. FMC Corp.

In Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Const. Co., 309 U.S. 18, 60 S.Ct. 413, 84 L.Ed. 554, the court stated the doctrine as limited to a case in which the officer or agent of the government exceeded his authority or the authority was not validly conferred.

Summary of this case from Banco de Espana v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York

In Yearsley, the Supreme Court found that where the United States government's "authority to carry out the project was validly conferred, that is, if what was done was within the constitutional power of Congress," then "there is no liability on the part of the contractor" who "simply performed as the Government directed."

Summary of this case from Pizarro v. Nat'l Steel & Shipbuilding Co.

In Yearsley, plaintiffs sought to recover damages for land that was washed away as the result of work done by the defendant in building dikes in the Missouri River. Yearsley, 309 U.S. at 19.

Summary of this case from New York v. Pa. Higher Educ. Assistance Agency

In Yearsley, the Federal Government did not direct the contractor to take the petitioners' land; rather, the Government directed the contractor to build dikes in the Missouri River, which resulted in erosion and part of the petitioners' land being washed away. 309 U.S. at 19-20.

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In Yearsley, a landowner asserted a claim for damages against a private company that performed work on a river pursuant to a contract with the United States government. 309 U.S. at 19.

Summary of this case from Connolly v. TriWest Healthcare All. Corp.

In Yearsley, the Supreme Court held that if the government conferred authority to perform a project upon a contractor then, the contractor assumes no liability for performing as directed. 309 U.S. at 20-21.

Summary of this case from Johnson v. Affiliated Comput. Servs., Inc.

In Yearsley, the Court recognized that a government contractor may not be subject to suit if: "(1) the government authorized the contractor's actions and (2) the government 'validly conferred' that authorization, meaning it acted within its constitutional power."

Summary of this case from Norat v. Fluor Intercontinental, Inc.
Case details for

Yearsley v. Ross Constr. Co.

Case Details

Full title:YEARSLEY ET AL. v . W.A. ROSS CONSTRUCTION CO

Court:U.S.

Date published: Jan 29, 1940

Citations

309 U.S. 18 (1940)
60 S. Ct. 413

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