Supreme Court Won't Consider Opening Military to Lawsuits

The Supreme Court refused Monday to revive a lawsuit against the Navy over a holiday rafting accident, turning back a challenge to far-reaching limits on military lawsuits.

Soldiers and their families cannot sue over such things as war injuries and training accidents. Under the Supreme Court's 1950 interpretation of the ban, the government has virtually total immunity when a service member dies or is injured.

This case involves the deaths of two off-duty enlisted men while on a recreational outing. The families of Nollie P. Costo, 29, and Christopher J. Graham, 20, contend that the Navy, which organized the rafting trip, was negligent.

Because the two were active-duty sailors when they were killed on the military-sponsored trip, under the 1950 Feres decision their families cannot sue, an appeals court said.

The Supreme Court declined without comment to consider the appeal.

"The court's disposition of this case will serve notice to American service personnel whether their military status earns them, or denies them, those ordinary legal remedies enjoyed by their civilian counterparts," attorney Robert A. Weppner, representing the families, wrote in Supreme Court filings.

Costo and Graham were stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state when they took the rafting trip in July 1995. They died after their raft overturned in the Nooksack River after hitting a log.

Solicitor General Ted Olson, writing for the Bush administration, said the lawsuit restriction "ensures that all service members -- including those injured in combat abroad or in their quarters at home -- receive a uniform set of benefits."

"That uniformity is an indispensable part of maintaining high morale among all our military forces," Olson said in court filings. The case is Costo v. United States, 01-526.

In other cases on Monday, the Supreme Court:

--Said it would not consider guidelines for how people are notified about class action lawsuits in a case accusing the government of not trying hard enough to find job discrimination victims.

Judges overseeing lawsuits filed on behalf of large "classes" of people generally give advertising and notification rules for reaching those who could be involved in the case.

In this case, an appeals court said three women were years too late to get a piece of a $508 million government settlement. The three wanted to the Supreme Court to spell out stricter rules for notification.

The trio were unaware of a 1977 class action lawsuit by women against the now-defunct United States Information Agency.

Olson said about $1 million was spent notifying potential plaintiffs in 1988 and 1989, on things like newspaper ads. Dillon v. Powell, 01-437;

--Passed up another chance to decide if the $206 billion tobacco settlement is unconstitutional.

The 1998 settlement has prompted multiple lawsuits. This one said the deal lets the largest U.S. tobacco companies protect their marketing dominance by limiting competition from smaller companies.

Justices refused to hear arguments from cigarette wholesalers who contend that the deal restricts trade and is unconstitutional because Congress did not agree to it. The lawsuit had been filed on behalf of about 900 wholesalers that want the agreement thrown out.

Large cigarette makers ended a group of health-related lawsuits by agreeing to make yearly payments to states over 25 years. The money compensates states for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses of people on Medicaid. A.D. Bedell Wholesale Co. v. Philip Morris, 01-656.