Molzof v. United States, 502 U.S. 301 (1992)

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MOLZOF, personal representative of the ESTATE OF MOLZOF v. UNITED STATES

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 90-838. Argued November 4, 1991—Decided January 14, 1992

The District Court awarded the guardian ad litem of petitioner Molzof's since-deceased husband damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA or Act) for supplemental medical care for injuries suffered by Mr. Molzof as a result of the negligence of federal employees, but refused to award damages for future medical expenses and for loss of enjoyment of life. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that damages of the latter two types were barred by the FTCA's prohibition on "punitive damages," 28 U. S. C. 2674.

Held: 1. Section 2674—under which "[t]he United States shall be liable [on] tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable . . . for punitive damages" (emphasis added)—bars the recovery only of what are legally considered "punitive damages" under traditional common-law principles; i. e., those whose recoverability depends upon proof that the defendant has engaged in intentional or egregious misconduct and whose purpose is to punish. Pp. 304-312. (a) This reading is consistent with the above-quoted language of 2674, which makes clear that the extent of FTCA liability is generally determined by reference to state law, under which "punitive damages" is a legal term of art that has a widely accepted common-law meaning, of which Congress was presumably aware when it adopted the Act. In contrast, the Government's view that "punitive damages" must be defined as those "that are in excess of, or bear no relation to, compensation" is contrary to the statutory language, which suggests that to the extent that a plaintiff may be entitled to damages that are not legally considered "punitive damages," but which are for some reason above and beyond ordinary notions of compensation, the United States is liable "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual." Pp. 304-308. (b) The reading adopted here is also consistent with the Act's structure and provides courts with a workable standard for determining when a plaintiff is improperly seeking "punitive damages." The Government's argument that a congressional intent to define punitive dam-


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