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Veto of Bill for the Relief of the Estate of Susie Lee Spencer.

July 02, 1956

To the United States Senate:

I return herewith without my approval S. 2152, "For the relief of the estate of Susie Lee Spencer."

The enrolled bill would direct the Secretary of the Treasury to pay $7,500 to the estate of Mrs. Spencer in full settlement of all claims against the United States for her death, sustained in an accident at the Norfolk Navy Yard on December 11, 1943.

Mrs. Spencer was employed by the Navy Department as a civilian truckdriver at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia. On December 11, 1943, she was assigned to deliver a truckload of material to Building 384 at the navy yard. She approached her destination at approximately 1:30 a. m. on that date and in order to obtain assistance in unloading the truck she had to locate the supervisor of the warehouse crew. She and her helper were driving slowly through the area when they saw a man they thought was the person they were seeking and Mrs. Spencer stopped her truck. At this point the vehicle was directly across the spur line of the railroad system of the Norfolk Navy Yard.

Simultaneously, a locomotive of the shipyard assigned to remove cars from the rear of Building 384 began backing along the spur. There was a sharp curve in the track as the spur cut from the main line alongside the warehouse building. The normal procedure was for a member of the train crew to station himself at the crossing to warn traffic and to signal the train if there were danger of a collision, but it was not followed in this case.

Mrs. Spencer was seriously injured when the train rammed her truck. Despite emergency surgery, she died in the Norfolk Navy Hospital at 9:55 P.M.. on December 11, 1943.

The deceased was survived by a husband but by no children or other dependent relatives. Her husband made application for compensation under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (39 Stat. 742, as amended) on account of the death of his wife. By the terms of the Act, however, compensation for death, except burial allowance, is payable only to certain classes of dependents. As there was no showing of dependency upon his wife, Mr. Spencer's claim was denied. The specified burial allowance of $200, however, was paid in this case.

The provisions of S. 2152 are identical to those of H. R. 1026, 81st Congress, and S. 1045, 82d Congress, which were returned to the Congress without approval.

I am compelled to withhold my approval of this measure.

Although I can appreciate the motives of equity and fairness which prompted Congress to seek to make amends for the negligence of a Government employee by private bill, I believe that sympathy and equity must be subordinated to the overriding considerations of sound public policy and equality before the law. S. 2152 is inconsistent with the principles of dependency requirements and the exclusive remedy provisions of the Federal Employees' Compensation Act. When Congress passed the 1949 amendments to the Act, those provisions of the Act which limit the right of a surviving husband to compensation were reaffirmed. This general policy should not now be weakened by singling out a particular individual for special treatment not accorded to others similarly situated.

If Congress is of the view that there are sound and justifiable reasons for departing from the policy of this Act, to permit payment of death compensation to a nondependent husband of a Federal employee, it should do so through general legislation rather than by making individual exceptions through the enactment of private relief measures which are discriminatory against the general class of persons subject to the Federal Employees' Compensation Act.

In this connection, I have been informed that, on the average, 200 claims for death compensation are filed each year under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act. Of these, some 15 per cent are denied on grounds of nondependency. In my judgment, it would be inequitable in the face of such statistics to approve a bill for a single beneficiary.

In disapproving this bill, I am aware that the Congress has treated it as action upon a petition for redress of grievance rather than as an exception to the Federal Employees' Compensation Act. There are many circumstances in which this approach is wise. It has resulted, in words of the Judiciary Committee, in passage by the Congress of "private bills almost without number in recognition of meritorious claims". It seems to me, however, that where the Congress has enacted general legislation of broad applicability, consideration should first be given to amendment of that legislation before resorting to the private bill procedure. A private bill frequently establishes a precedent that makes consideration of amendment of general law increasingly difficult with each similar enactment.


Dwight D. Eisenhower, Veto of Bill for the Relief of the Estate of Susie Lee Spencer. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232945

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