(CN) – The 8th Circuit rejected a lawsuit from a distraught woman who believed her son was killed while serving the Army in Iraq because a letter she mailed to his camp was returned, undelivered with the stamp “DECEASED.”
After receiving the letter, Joan Najbar contacted the U.S. Postal Service and the Red Cross for more information. The Red Cross looked into the matter and discovered that the soldier was still alive.
Najbar, of Duluth, Minn., said she got the shocking letter marked with red ink in 2006 just days after talking to her son on the telephone from Iraq. A spokeswoman for the Minnesota National Guard told The Associated Press that year that “the Army would not return letters to the family of a dead soldier in this manner.”
The Postal Service denied Najbar’s administrative claims, leading her to file suit against the United States. Najbar’s complaint said “she has never received an apology from the USPS, nor has she ever received an explanation of why the letter sent to her son Iraq was marked Deceased.'”
The government moved to dismiss Najbar’s lawsuit, which sought damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act for emotional distress and negligence. It claimed that sovereign immunity deprived the court of subject-matter jurisdiction, noting that claim arising out of misrepresentation or negligent transmission of letters do not meet the criteria for waiver of sovereign immunity under the FTCA.
A Minnesota federal judge agreed, finding that Najbar’s claims arose out of “misrepresentation (i.e., my son was alive when you told me he was dead),” but not from lost, miscarried or negligently transmitted mail.”
The St. Louis-based federal appeals court affirmed, but on different grounds, last week.
“As a general matter, the Postal Service has a duty to deliver letters to their intended recipients,” Judge Roger Wollman wrote for a three-judge panel. “When it concludes, even negligently, that a letter is undeliverable, it returns that letter to the sender. Sometimes, as in this case, it will provide the sender with the reason why it was, or believed it was, unable to deliver the letter. In most cases, such miscarriage will result in minimal injury to the sender, perhaps nothing more than the cost of another envelope and stamp. Other times, as here, the miscarriage and attendant reason therefore may cause severe emotional distress. Nevertheless, that distress is the result of a miscarriage – a consequence falling within the postal-matter exception.”