257 U.S. 233 (1921), 28, Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia

Docket Nº:No. 28
Citation:257 U.S. 233, 42 S.Ct. 89, 66 L.Ed. 210
Party Name:Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia
Case Date:December 05, 1921
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 233

257 U.S. 233 (1921)

42 S.Ct. 89, 66 L.Ed. 210

Western Fuel Co.



No. 28

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 5, 1921

Argued March 18, 1921

Restored to docket for reargument and writ of certiorari ordered

to issue to bring up entire record and cause, March 21, 1921

Reargued October 7, 10, 1921




1. No suit to recover damages for the death of a human being caused by negligence may be maintained in the admiralty courts of the United States under the general maritime law. P. 240.

2. But where death upon navigable waters follows from a maritime tort committed on navigable waters within a state whose statutes give a right of action on account of death by wrongful act, the admiralty courts will entertain a libel in personam for the damages sustained by those to whom such right is given. P. 242.

3. The state statutes of limitation are applicable to such proceedings in the federal courts. So held in a case where the injury and death occurred within the state where the libel was brought and whose statutes creating the cause of action and providing a limitation were applied. P. 242.

Judgment of district court reversed.

Certiorari to review a case pending in the circuit court of appeals on appeal from the district court in admiralty.

Page 238

MCREYNOLDS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The circuit court of appeals certified certain questions for instruction, and thereafter we directed that the cause be sent here for determination as if upon appeal. Judicial Code, § 239.

Manuel Souza, a citizen and resident of California, was instantly killed, August 5, 1916, while employed as a stevedore by the petitioner and at work in the hold of the

Page 239

Tancred, a Norwegian vessel under charter to it, then anchored in San Francisco Bay and discharging her cargo. The libel alleged that the injury was caused by coal negligently permitted to fall from a steel hoisting bucket.

Relying upon the California Workmen's Compensation Act of 1913, the Industrial Accident Commission granted an award in favor of the widow and children, which the supreme court of the state annulled August 6, 1917 -- a year and a day subsequent to the death.

Shortly thereafter, August 21st, the widow and children began an admiralty suit in personam against the petitioner in the United States District Court, Northern District of California, wherein they alleged that the accident resulted from its negligence and prayed for damages. Later respondent, having been appointed administrator, filed an amended libel with like allegations and prayer, and upon this the cause was ultimately tried. Petitioner denied liability and relied upon § 340, subsection 3, California Code of Civil Procedure, which requires that an action for damages consequent upon death caused by wrongful act, or negligence shall be brought within one year. *

Page 240

[42 S.Ct. 90] The district court held in favor of the administrator, and awarded substantial damages; the circuit court of appeals has sent up the whole cause under our direction.

It is established doctrine that no suit to recover damages for the death of a human being caused by negligence may be maintained in the admiralty courts of the United States under the general maritime law. At the common law, no civil action lies for an injury resulting from death. The maritime law as generally accepted by maritime nations leaves the matter untouched, and in practice, each of them has applied the same rule for the sea which it maintains on land. The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 204, 213; The Alaska, 130 U.S. 201, 209; La Bourgogne, 210 U.S. 95, 138-139.

How far this rule of nonliability adopted and enforced by our admiralty courts in the absence of an applicable statute may be modified, changed, or supplemented by state legislation has been the subject of consideration here, but no complete solution of the question has been announced.

In Cooley v. Board of Wardens, 12 How. 299, and Ex parte McNiel, 13 Wall. 236, the power of a state to legislate concerning subjects maritime in their nature was under discussion, and it was pointed out that, as to certain local matters, a state statute may grant rights which will be enforced in an admiralty court.

In American Steamboat Co. v. Chace, 16 Wall. 531, 532, the decedent was killed on navigable waters within Rhode Island. Relying upon the death statute of that state, his administrator sued and recovered in one of its courts. This Court affirmed the judgment. Whether an admiralty court could have entertained a proceeding based upon the statute was mooted, but not determined.

Sherlock v. Alling, 93 U.S. 99, arose out of a collision between steamboats on the Ohio River within the limits

Page 241

of Indiana whose statute gave a right of action for death caused by wrongful act, and a recovery in the state court was affirmed here. The defense rested primarily upon the erroneous theory that the statute encroached upon the commercial powers of Congress. There was no discussion of the point now directly presented. I...

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