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Court Helps People Suing Government in First Thomas Opinion

January 14, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ People who sue the federal government over injuries caused by its negligent employees may collect money for ″loss of enjoyment of life,″ the Supreme Court said Tuesday.

The court ruled unanimously that additional monetary damages may be available to a widow whose husband was left permanently comatose because of negligent treatment he received at a veterans hospital in Wisconsin.

At issue was the definition of ″punitive damages,″ barred by the federal law that allows such lawsuits against the government.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in his first opinion for the court, rejected the Bush administration’s attempt to define broadly what constitutes punitive damages.

″Punitive damages is a legal term of art that has a widely accepted common-law meaning″ - damages awarded to punish a wrongdoer, Thomas said.

His opinion, an 11-page examination of the Federal Tort Claims Act rebutting the administration’s arguments point by point, was his first writing assignment since joining the court in November.

The opinion contains no footnotes, a rarity for the high court.

In other decisions, the court:

-Allowed states and counties to impose property taxes on reservation land owned by American Indians. But in the same case from Yakima, Wash., the justices barred imposition of excise taxes on the sale of such privately owned, ″fee″ land.

-Made it easier for new political parties to place candidates on the ballot as it struck down restrictive Illinois rules that would have kept an slate of black candidates off Cook County ballots in 1990.

-Relaxed the rules for people who represent themselves in court, ruling in the case of a Maryland prison inmate that a legal brief sometimes may substitute for a formal notification that an appeal is planned.

The court’s punitive-damages ruling involved a law that waives the government’s usual legal immunity and lets people sue over injuries caused by negligent government employees.

Robert Molzof had part of a lung removed in 1986 at a Veterans Administration hospital in Madison, Wis. After hospital workers accidentally disconnected a breathing device, he suffered irreversible brain damage and was left permanently comatose.

The government concedes that Molzof’s injuries were caused by the hospital employees’ negligence.

Shirley Molzof sued the government in behalf of her husband and herself. She was awarded $150,000 for loss of her husband’s companionship.

But lower courts ruled Molzof could not collect damages for ″loss of enjoyment of life″ or for medical care that would duplicate the free care he was receiving in the VA hospital.

The lower courts said such awards would amount to punitive damages because they are not based on actual economic loss.

When Molzof died, his widow carried the legal fight to the nation’s highest court as the personal representative of his estate.

Writing for the court, Thomas said the lower courts were wrong.

″These damages in the ‘gray’ zone are not by definition ‘punitive damages’ barred under the act,″ Thomas said. ″We conclude that (the FTCA) bars the recovery only of what are legally considered punitive damages under traditional common-law principles.″

Mrs. Molzof’s case was sent back to a federal trial judge to determine what damages she may recover under Wisconsin law.

The case is Molzof vs. U.S., 90-838.

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