St. Mary's Law Journal


In Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., the United States Supreme Court held military contractors who comply with the elements of the government contractor defense are immune from products liability suits stemming from design defects. Lower courts consider the government contractor defense to be a combination of two separate defenses. The first is the well-settled contract specification defense which eliminates liability for contractors who properly follow client supplied specifications. The second defense is the doctrine of shared sovereign immunity shielding the contractor from liability based on public policy concerns.

In Boyle, the Court held defective design of military equipment will not result in liability under state law when the United States approved reasonably precise specifications. Immunity would exist so long as the equipment conformed to those specifications and the supplier warned the United States of dangers in using the equipment that were known to the supplier but not to the United States. The majority decided the conflict based on the language of a provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which provides discretionary functions of the government are within the exceptions that prohibit suit under the act. The problems in Boyle arise because the Court legislatively altered tort law and gave a cloak of immunity to government contractors whose products have design defects. First, the displacement of state tort law, implementing broad immunity for government contractors, does not clarify a confusing area of law. Second, the majority created a formulation of the immunity, which is quite liberal in its requirements, yet arguably narrow in its application. Finally, the Court should have allowed Congress to legislate a more equitable affirmative defense in military products liability cases.


St. Mary's University School of Law