APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 75-1516).
Aldisert, Rosenn and Hunter, Circuit Judges.
We are to decide if written communications between the Post Office Department and appellant constituted a release precluding appellant from bringing a claim for personal injuries under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq. The district court found a binding release to exist under 28 U.S.C. § 2672 and granted summary judgment for the government. We vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.
Section 2672 provides in pertinent part:
The acceptance by the claimant of any such award, compromise, or settlement shall be final and conclusive on the claimant, and shall constitute a complete release of any claim against the United States and against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim, by reason of the same subject matter.
It is the government's contention that there was a meeting of the minds by the parties on "a compromise or settlement" and, in the statutory formulation, "the acceptance by the claimant of any . . . compromise, or settlement [was] final and conclusive" on the part of Ms. Macy, the claimant.
Reduced to its essence, the controversy draws upon classic fundamentals of the law of contracts and requires a step-by-step analysis of the negotiations between the parties, set forth in documents presented to the district court in the summary judgment proceedings.
On November 23, 1973, a mail truck struck Ms. Macy's car. On January 8, 1974, Ms. Macy submitted to the Pittsburgh Postmaster the standard form 95-105, labelled "Claim for Damage, Injury or Death". The form contains printed instructions, including:
If claimant intends to file claim for both personal injury and property damages, claim for both must be shown on line 10 of this form. Separate claims for personal injury and property damage are not acceptable.
On line 10A, labelled "Amount of Claim - Property," plaintiff entered the sum of $565.40; line 10B, labelled "Amount of Claim - Personal Injury," was left blank; line 10D, labelled "Amount of Claim - Total," shows $565.40. Immediately above the place on the form providing for the claimant's signature, the printed form reads "I certify that the amount of claim covers only damages and injuries caused by the accident and agree to accept said amount in full satisfaction and final settlement of this claim." In completing the form, however, Ms. Macy altered these printed words by striking out the italicized portion and adding to the statement the phrase "if it covers the damages".
Although it is conceded that Form 95 as presented could be considered as an offer by Ms. Macy to settle a claim for $565.40, her offer was not accepted. Instead, on January 24, 1974, a postal inspector wrote to Ms. Macy acknowledging receipt of the $565.40 offer, rejecting it and stating:
If you agree that the $550.10 [a lower estimate for the auto damage] is a fair payment, it would be appreciated if you would forward to me a signed and dated letter advising that you will accept the lower amount. If you disagree, I would ...