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Dalehite v. United States

346 U.S. 15 (1953)

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Dalehite v. United States

United States Supreme Court

346 U.S. 15 (1953)

Facts

The United States government (defendant) manufactured and produced fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) under general supervision of the U.S. Army’s chief of ordnance and under the local direction of the army’s field director of ammunition plants. The government sought advice on its detailed FGAN manufacturing plan from experienced commercial producers of explosives. In Texas City, Henry Dalehite was killed when bags of FGAN on the ship Grandcamp caught fire and exploded, spreading fire to another ship carrying fertilizer, which also exploded. Dalehite’s estate (plaintiff) sued the government for Dalehite’s death. The FGAN was manufactured in government-owned plants at the government’s order to its specifications and shipped at its direction as foreign-aid relief. Evidence showed FGAN had been safely manufactured for four years. The expert witnesses for Dalehite’s estate testified that scientific opinion considered ammonium nitrate potentially dangerous, especially if combined with the material in the fertilizer. The War Production Board conducted tests into the explosion and fire hazards of FGAN. However, the board terminated the tests at an intermediate stage, against the recommendation of the laboratory, preventing further research that might have disclosed suspected but unverified dangers. Moreover, there was a history of unexplained fires and explosions involving ammonium nitrate, which the government attempted to distinguish from the Texas City explosions. The government showed that private persons who manufactured similar fertilizer took no more precautions than the government. The government argued that its decisions as to discontinuing the investigation of hazards, bagging at high temperature, using paper bagging material, the type of moisture-protective coating used, and not adding labeling and warning involved a conscious weighing of expediency against caution and were therefore within the immunity for discretionary acts provided by the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The district court found the government negligent in four specific acts in manufacturing FGAN: the maximum bagging temperature, using paper bags to hold the FGAN, the labeling specifications, and the type of moisture-protective coating. The court of appeals reversed.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Reed, J.)

Dissent

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