Military contractors not liable for faulty equipment. Picketing restriction upheld by justices in separate decision
Boston — Two key United States Supreme Court rulings Monday - one shielding defense contractors against personal injury lawsuits and another allowing local communities to ban picketing of private residences - have broad implications for other disputes. The justices's 5 to 4 decision in the former case protects companies that make military equipment from being successfully sued as long as they have used a Pentagon-approved design and have not concealed any potential hazards from the government.
Some believe this ruling has important legal ramifications for the US shuttle disaster. It has been argued that Morton Thiokol, maker of the shuttle, could be protected from liability under this reasoning.
The picketing decision - a 6 to 3 vote upholding an Brookfield, Wis., ordinance - is a direct rebuff to right-to-life activists who sought to protest the abortion activities of a medical doctor. In another area, the justices's language could also be used to limit the picketing weapon by unions in a labor dispute.
In the defense contractor matter, Boyle v. United Technologies Corporation, the court appeared to be building on the rea soning of an earlier decision which held that US service personnel may not directly sue the government for losses or injuries incurred while in the military. Now the high court has extended such protection to military contractors.
The vote split along liberal-conservative lines.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said that state laws authorizing personal injury suits are generally preempted by the federal government's need to make clear military decisions.
``We are of the view that state law which holds government contractors liable for design defects in military equipment does in some circumstances present a significant conflict with federal policy and must be displaced,'' Justice Scalia explained.
Suits against contractors are barred, he added, when the Pentagon has approved precise specifications, the equipment conforms to those specifications, and the supplier has warned the government about potential dangers that might result.
Scalia was supported in this ruling by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Byron White.
Dissenting were Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens.
Justice Brennan held that the majority's defense of military contractors was too sweeping. And he added that the power to devise rules indicating when contractors may be sued should be left to Congress.
``This court,'' wrote the court's main liberal voice, ``lacks both the authority and expertise to fashion'' such broad protection for contractors ``whether to protect the Treasury of the United States or the coffers of industry.''
The decision invalidated a $725,000 cash award to the family of a Marine helicopter co-pilot who died in a l983 crash in the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia Beach, Va.
Frisby v. Schultz, the picketing ruling, tested a municipal ordinance that outlaws this type of protest ``before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual.''
Justice O'Connor, writing for the majority, said this law is specific enough to protect both constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and the privacy of residents.
``So narrowed, the ordinance permits the more general dissemination of a message,'' explained O'Connor. ``General marching through residential neighborhoods, or even walking a route in front of an entire block of houses, is not prohibited by this ordinance'' she added.
However, Justice Stevens, in dissent, said the municipal measure makes it ``unlawful for a fifth grader to carry a sign [saying] `Get well Charlie - Our Team Needs You' in front of a residence for a period of time necessary to convey its friendly message to its intended audience.''
The case involved an anti-abortion group, Milwaukee Coalition for Life, that picketed in front of the home of Dr. Benjamin Victoria on at least six different occasions in l985. Dr. Victoria performs abortions as part of his medical practice. The demonstrators carried signs and shouted insults, calling the physician a ``killer.''
A lower court judge granted an injunction against the ordinance that he said was probably unconstitutional since a public street is a type of ``public forum'' where it is unlawful to place a flat ban on speech.
The Seventh US Court of Appeals upheld the injunction. But the Supreme Court overturned it, holding that the town has a ``substantial'' interest in banning speech ``directed primarily at those who are presumably unwilling to receive it.''