In 1978, Sandra B. Andrews, the wife of a naval officer, visited a Navy clinic in Charleston, S.C., and was treated for depression.
A physician's assistant, Travis L. Gee, prescribed mood-altering drugs for Andrews and eventually persuaded her that the best therapy was to have sexual relations with him, which she did during her last visit to the clinic.
Andrews and her husband later sued the federal government over Gee's form of treatment and won $100,000 in damages, which was upheld by a federal appeals court.
Assistant Attorney General Richard K. Willard sees the case as one of a series of "outrageous" liability rulings against the government. These decisions, Willard said in a recent speech, are part of a trend toward "excessive" damage awards that are "rooted in a philosophy of attaching liability without fault to 'deep pocket' defendants."
Should the government be held liable for unorthodox therapy at a military clinic? Should it have to compensate victims exposed to low-level radiation from nuclear testing 30 years ago or World War II shipyard workers who developed asbestos-related ailments?
The Justice Department responds in the narrowest terms. Willard, acting chief of the department's Civil Division, suggests that the system is out of control, the product of "a largely unelected judiciary imposing its risk preferences on the rest of society." He added that the courts "are likely to be swayed too much by concern for the plaintiff."
Other experts disagree. Marshall S. Shapo, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, said the principles of liability are "a well-established legal doctrine. Anyone who argues against that doctrine is arguing with decades of legal history.
"One cannot reasonably argue that the system has gone out of control," Shapo said. "It's hard to see, beyond anecdotes, what the facts are that are being complained about."
Corporate officials, who also face a growing volume of liability suits, echo Willard's concerns. Stephen Bokat, general counsel of the Chamber of Commerce, said some judges are "creating a new definition of what is fault. We ought to think real closely before we impose liability on people who may be perfectly innocent."
Few would deny that suing Uncle Sam is a growth industry. The Civil Division has 120 lawyers who are defending 8,900 cases involving $63 billion in damage claims against the U.S. government. Plaintiffs received $429 million in judgments and settlements from the government last year, and several recent personal injury awards have topped $4 million.
In one of the most significant cases, Allen v. United States, a federal judge in Utah has ruled that the government was negligent in failing to adequately monitor nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s and 1960s and for not warning residents in nearby Utah who were exposed to low-level radioactive fallout.
The ruling came in 24 test cases picked from among 1,200 suits involving residents who were exposed to the radiation and developed cancer. U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins ruled against the government in 10 of the 24 cases; the Justice Department is appealing.
Willard attacked the rulings in his speech, saying that there was "no credible scientific evidence" that the radiation had injured anyone and that cancer rates in Utah were well below the national average. He said the judge had placed an "impossible burden" on the government of "proving the negative" -- that the nuclear fallout could not have caused the injuries.
"He doesn't know what he's talking about," replied Dale Haralson, an attorney for the Utah plaintiffs. He said there was evidence of a 344 percent increase in childhood leukemia in the affected areas.
Haralson said Willard was being "less than candid" in failing to mention that cancer rates are lower in Utah because of Mormon abstinence from tobacco and alcohol.
He also dismissed the notion that the taxpayers are being victimized by hordes of greedy plaintiffs, saying that this "discounts the problems people have when they sue the government. The government literally will spend millions of dollars defending claims." He added that a statistical computer model in his radiation case cost the government $6.5 million.
In another case last year, a federal judge in Boston ruled that the National Weather Service was liable for the deaths of three lobstermen in a fierce storm that forecasters had not predicted. The judge awarded the fishermen's families $1.25 million because the agency had failed to repair a weather buoy that could have predicted the storm.
Even when there is no dispute over who is at fault, there are complicated arguments over compensation in accidents where the victim is killed or severely handicapped. "If the awards are astronomical, it's often because the medical bills are astronomical," Shapo said.
Other liability suits involve "vicarious liability," which is imposed on an employer for failing to supervise a subordinate properly. This is a frequent issue in cases against the government because federal employes are immune from individual suits in connection with their work.
In one recent case, a dog owned by an Air Force officer in Montana escaped and bit a neighbor's daughter. The neighbor sued, and a federal appeals court ruled that damages were in order because the officer had neglected his duty to protect the military base by not tying up the dog.
The Sandra Andrews case also turned on vicarious liability, with the government arguing that Gee's sexual assault was outside the scope of his employment. The Justice Department brief said the Navy officer's actions "were not in furtherance of the government's business" and "were motivated solely by his personal desire for sexual pleasure."
Peter DeLuca, Andrews' attorney, responded that Gee seduced Andrews "under the guise of therapy, and therefore it was in the scope of his employment. He basically gained her confidence, put her on mood-elevating drugs and went on from there."
DeLuca said his victory could lead to "a rash of cases" against the government. "Why should they be held to any different standard than in any other master-servant relationship?" he asked. "It's the same as if one of their doctors maimed somebody."