A Technological Dream Turned Legal Nightmare: Potential Liability of the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act for Operating the Global Positioning System

By Ehrhart, Brandon Eric | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, March 2000 | Go to article overview

A Technological Dream Turned Legal Nightmare: Potential Liability of the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act for Operating the Global Positioning System


Ehrhart, Brandon Eric, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


ABSTRACT

The U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) provides precise positioning information to anyone in the world, regardless of nationality, as long as they have access to an inexpensive receiver. However, in managing and providing the GPS for no charge, the United States may have opened itself, to worldwide tort exposure. This Note analyzes U.S. liability for negligently operating the GPS under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in four categories.

First, this Note examines the transformation of the GPS from its domestic military beginnings to its current role as the foremost radionavigation technique in history and as a vital tool to civilians across the world. Relying on historical data and the GPS's rapid expansion, this Note establishes how negligent GPS operation by the United States could harm a non-American outside of the United States.

Second, this Note addresses the applicability of the FTCA's foreign country exception to a lawsuit arising from negligent GPS operation. This second section argues that the foreign country exception should probably not prevent the lawsuit from progressing.

Third, this Note surveys and analyzes U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Courts of Appeals caselaw to determine the applicability of the FTCA's discretionary function exception to this lawsuit. It then reveals the crucial issues relevant to a GPS lawsuit under the FTCA's discretionary, function exception.

This Note concludes by stating that Congress should exempt the GPS from FTCA liability because of the devastating effect unparalleled global liability would have on the planet's preeminent navigational device.

I. INTRODUCTION

Pick up the phone and dial 1-703-313-5907.(1) After two rings, a recorded message curtly announces the availability of items listed by an alphanumeric sequence.(2) The voice then gives the expected downtime of these objects calibrated to ZULU time.(3) This constantly updated message concludes with additional information relevant to these items.(4)

This recording does not relay information concerning an alien landing, the expected impact of an asteroid with earth, or a secret military code but instead provides information essential to more than a million people across the globe.(5) This mysterious message updates the status of the Global Positioning System (GPS).(6) The GPS is a navigational tool that fixes a position anywhere on earth but with a few more "bells and whistles" than your average compass and map.(7)

Relying on GPS information, pilots land commercial airliners, mariners negotiate the stormy seas of the North Atlantic, architects determine where to build the world's next skyscrapers, motorists navigate through unknown cities, and hikers transverse uncharted terrain.(8) What began as a tool for the U.S. military to provide precise positioning for its targeting systems, such as nuclear ballistic missile submarines, has become a global resource that more and more people employ each day.(9) After spending a couple of hundred dollars to buy a receiver, any person, regardless of their nationality, can use the system free of charge, courtesy of the U.S. Government and its taxpayers.(10)

Along with the pride of paying for the world's use of the most precise navigational tool in history, U.S. taxpayers should also recognize that this system has exposed the United States to liability from citizens around the globe.(11) In 1992, the Air Force inaccurately updated the position of one of the satellites in the GPS.(12) The resulting error caused a horizontal position error to GPS receivers that exceeded three hundred meters.(13) Had a Belgium citizen been relying on GPS information to land an airplane at a fogged-in airport in Germany at this time, the airplane may have crashed into the control tower instead of gently landing on the airstrip. Consequently, the descendants of the pilot and the passengers could sue the United States for the negligent operation of the GPS in U. …

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