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    Government Contracting Database

    Government Contractor Defense

    Government Contractor Defense

    In the landmark case of Boyle v. United Technologies Corporation, 487 U.S. 500 (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a defense contractor manufacturing a military product in accordance with precise government specifications may not be held liable for claims resulting from use of the manufactured product. In order for this federal common law doctrine to be recognized as preemptive of state law, it must be shown that (1) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications, (2) the product conformed to those specifications, and (3) the contractor warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the product which were known to the contractor but not to the United States. 487 U.S. at 512.

    Whether this defense to a state law tort claim will be available depends on a number of factors, including whether the jurisdiction recognizes the defense in a non – military setting, and whether it applies to a service contract.

    The courts appear to be split on the first issue. In Carley v. Wheeled Coach, 991 F.2d 1117, 1119 – 23 (3d Cir. 1993), the Third Circuit determined that the government contractor defense is available to non – military contractor s. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted the Boyle Court’s reliance on Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18 (1940), wherein the Supreme Court determined that a construction contractor performing work for the federal government could not be held liable for damages under state law.

    Other courts, however, have limited the government contractor defense to contractors manufacturing products for the military. See In re Hawaii Federal Asbestos Cases, 960 F.2d 806, 810 – 12 (9th Cir. 1992); Niel sen v. George Diamond Vogel Paint Co., 892 F.2d 1450, 1452 – 55 (9th Cir. 1990); Grispo v. Eagle – Picher Industries, Inc., 897 F.2d 626 (2d Cir. 1990).

    Although attempts have been made to extend this defense to service contracts which do not involve issues of product liability, contractors seeking its protection have had mixed and limited success. For example, in Lamb v. Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc., 835 F.Supp. 959 (W.D. Ky. 1993), landowners sued the Operations and Management contractor of the federal government’s Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant for contamination of groundwater arising from the contractor’s operation of the nuclear production facility. The court found no reason to limit the Boyle defense to procurement contracts and approved its application to contracts for services. 835 F.Supp. at 966 n.7.

    A similar result was reached in Crawford v. National Lead Co., 784 F.Supp. 439 (S.D. Ohio 1989), where a suit was lodged against another Operations and Management contractor at a Department of Energy site. Although the court concluded that the defense generally was available for DOE contractors engaged in non – manufacturing operations, it nevertheless declined to apply the defense to excuse the violation of environmental laws and standards.

    In contrast, however, the court in Amtreco, Inc. v. O.H. Materials, Inc., 802 F.Supp. 443 (M.D. Ga. 1992), considered a suit filed by the parties responsible for the cleanup of a Superfund site against the remediation contractor retained by the federal government to perform cleanup work on the site, which alleged that the contractor’s tortious conduct in performance caused additional property damage. In rejecting the contractor’s attempted application of the government contractor defense to escape liability, the court determined that this defense applies only to product liability actions, not to actions for damages arising from the cleanup activities of a construction/services contractor.

    Updated: June 27, 2018

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