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COOPER v. UNITED STATES

April 30, 1986

FLORENCE COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SWEET

SWEET, D.J.

This personal injury suit arises out of a collision between a United States Postal Service vehicle and Florence Cooper. ("Cooper", a pedestrian. The complaint asserts two claims. The first, based on the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2671-2680, seeks damages for pain and suffering. The second seeks reimbursement for out-of-pocket medical expenses incurred as a result of the accident allegedly due under New York State's Comprehensive Motor Vehicle Insurance Reparation's Act ("no-fault law", N.Y. Insurance Law §§ 5101-5108 (McKinney 1985) (referred to below by section number only). Cooper brought. this motion for summary judgment on the second cause of action and the government has cross-moved. For the reasons set forth below, Cooper's motion for summary judgment is denied, the government's cross-motion is granted, and the second cause of action is dismissed. Cooper will, however, be granted leave to amend the first cause of action to allege damages resulting from her basic economic loss.

Facts

 On January 21, 1983, a Postal Service vehicle struck and injured Cooper. Cooper filed an administrative claim with the Postal Service on April 27, 1983 seeking $500,000 for personal injuries allegedly sustained in the accident. In May and June, 1983, Cooper submitted copies of medical bills for $20,399 to substantiate her administrative claim and in February, 1984, sent a letter demanding payment for these bills pursuant to the no-fault law. Cooper then filed this suit on March 9, 1984 seeking $500,000 for serious injuries and economic loss greater than basic economic loss due to defendant's negligence, and enforcement of her $20,399 claim for out-of-pocket medical expenses under the no-fault law. In this motion for partial summary judgment, Cooper argues that, as a matter of law, the United States must pay $20,399 for her economic loss or in the alternative, seeks leave to amend her complaint to include economic loss within the claim based on the defendant's negligence. In response, defendants assert that the motion for partial summary judgment should be denied and the second cause of action dismissed because the claims is barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity and by the provisions of the no-fault law.

 New York's No-Fault Law

 New York's no-fault law was enacted to address three problems: 1) the excessive expense of the tort system, 2) the unfair distribution of compensation among accident victims, and 3) the strain placed on the judicial system by tort litigation. Montgomery v. Daniels, 38 N.Y.2d 41, 50-51, 378 N.Y.S.2d 1, 8-9, 340 N.E.2d 444 (1975). The statute requires insurers or self-insured owners promptly to distribute "first party benefits" to accident victims to compensate for "basic economic loss" without regard to fault. "First party benefits" are "payments to reimburse a person for basic economic loss on account of personal injury arising out of the use or operation of a motor vehicle." § 5102(b). "Basic economic loss" includes medical expenses, loss of earnings and other reasonable and necessary" expenses up to $50,000 per person. § 5102(a). Neither party disputes that the $20,399 claimed in Cooper's second cause of action represents "basic economic loss" which would ordinarily be recoverable without proof of negligence under the no-fault law.

 By its own terms, the no-fault law obligates the United States to pay first party benefits. Section 321 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law excludes motor vehicles owned by the United States from having insurance or other adequate financial security provided that the owner shall be subject to the no-fault law. In turn, section 5103(a) of the no-fault law states that:

 [E]very owner of a motor vehicle required to be subject to the provisions of this article by subdivision two of section three hundred twenty-one of the vehicle and traffic law shall be liable for the payment of first party benefits to:

 (1) Persons, other than occupants of another motor vehicle or motorcycle, for loss arising out of the use or operation in this state of such motor vehicle. . .

 However, notwithstanding this state law provision for liability, Cooper's no-fault claim is rendered a nullity by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

 Sovereign Immunity

 Generally, one cannot maintain an action against the United States except for situations in which it consents to be sued. United States v. Mitchell, 445 U.S. 535, 538, 63 L. Ed. 2d 607, 100 S. Ct. 1349 (1980). The Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA", 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), grants district courts exclusive jurisdiction over tort claims against the United States. Pursuant to that statute, the United States consents to be sued for certain "negligent or wrongful act(s) or omission(s) of any employee of the Government . . . under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." Id. In Laird v. Nelms, 406 U.S. 797, 799, 32 L. Ed. 2d 499, 92 S. Ct. 1899 (1972), the Supreme Court emphasized that the United States can be held liable under the FTCA only after a finding of fault.

 Since New York's no-fault law would impose liability on the United States for Cooper's $20,399 claim without a finding of fault, any claim arising under the no-fault law would contravene the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Cf. Bell v. United States, 754 F.2d 490, 496 (3d Cir. 1985) (insurance company cannot maintain action against United States for no-fault benefits paid to occupant of government vehicle "due to the federal government's shield of sovereign immunity". Therefore, it is necessary to conclude that the provisions of New York's no-fault law which, in conjunction with the Vehicle and Traffic law, require the payment of first party benefits by the United States are preempted by the restrictions of the ...


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