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Could astronauts' families sue NASA for the Columbia disaster?

[JURIST] Probably not. In July 1986, six months after the Challenger accident, Ms. Jane Smith, the widow of Challenger pilot Captain Michael J. Smith, filed a wrongful death claim against the United States government, the manager of NASA, and Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Smith settled with Morton Thiokol but not with the Government. The US District Court (712 F.Supp. 893) and the US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (877 F.2d 40) held that since Captain Smith's death occurred during activity incident to his military service, the wrongful death claim against the United States was barred. The Court of Appeals also held that this doctrine could not be circumvented by suing a government employee in his personal capacity. Ms. Smith appealed to the US Supreme Court. Read the 1989 Justice Department brief [text] by then Solicitor-General Kenneth Starr that successfully argued against granting certiorari.

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