282 U.S. 531 (1931), 38, Langnes v. Green

Docket Nº:No. 38
Citation:282 U.S. 531, 51 S.Ct. 243, 75 L.Ed. 520
Party Name:Langnes v. Green
Case Date:February 24, 1931
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 531

282 U.S. 531 (1931)

51 S.Ct. 243, 75 L.Ed. 520




No. 38

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 24, 1931

Argued January 7, 8, 1931




1. In a proceeding by a ship owner to limit liability under R.S. §§ 4283-4285, as against a claim of damages for personal injury, the question whether the injury was occasioned with his privity and knowledge is not jurisdictional, but appertains to the merits of his petition. P. 534.

2. Upon renew of a decree of the circuit court of appeals in an admiralty case, a respondent in certiorari, though he did not cross-petition for the writ, may seek to sustain the decree upon a ground which the court below rejected, as well as upon that which it accepted. P. 535.

3. Where a ship owner, in a petition in the district court to limit liability under R.S. §§ 4283-4285, though alleging fear of other claims, set up none except an action for personal injuries which was then pending, on the eve of trial, in a state court, and where the nature of the accident and other circumstances of the case were such as to give rise to the presumption that no other claims existed and reflect doubt upon the allegation that others were feared,


(1) That the state court had jurisdiction of the action, under Jud.Code, § 24(3) and, in the exercise of its common law powers therein, was competent to entertain a claim of the ship owner for limitation of liability and afford him appropriate relief under the federal statute dealing with that subject. P. 539.

(2) The district court also had jurisdiction of the petition before it, but to be exercised in accordance with a sound discretion with regard to what was right and equitable. P. 540.

(3) Sound discretion required that the district court permit the action in the state court to proceed, so that the claimant's right to a common law remedy might not be destroyed, retaining, however, the petition for limited liability to be dealt with if the petitioner's right to such limitation were brought in question in the state court, or if the case otherwise assumed such form in that court as to bring it within the exclusive power of a court of admiralty. P. 541.

Page 532

(4) In restraining the state court action and in adjudicating for itself the question of liability, the district court committed an abuse of discretion reviewable by the circuit court of appeals and by this Court. P. 541.

35 F.2d 447 reversed.

Certiorari, 281 U.S. 708, to review a decree which reversed a decree of the district court, 32 F.2d 284, in a proceeding in admiralty to limit liability. The district court adjudicated the claim against the petitioning shipowner upon the merits and in his favor. The court below directed that the petition be reversed for want of jurisdiction.

SUTHERLAND, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, as sole owner of the fishing vessel Aloha, on February 24, 1928, brought a proceeding in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington praying a limitation of liability under Rev. St. §§ 4283, 4284, 4285 (U.S.C. Title 46, §§ 183, 184, 185), which are copied in the margin. * It was stipulated by the

Page 533

parties that the vessel was of no greater value than the sum of $5,000. After setting forth that petitioner was the sole owner of the vessel, and that the vessel was seaworthy in all respects, the petition alleged, among other things, that the respondent on October 11, 1927, had commenced an action in a superior court of the State of Washington against petitioner to recover damages in the sum of $25,000 for personal injuries suffered while employed upon said vessel. The petition for a limitation of liability was filed four months later while that action was pending, and, it is said and not denied, within two days before the date set for the trial in the state court. Following the filing of the petition, the federal district court issued an order restraining further proceedings in the state court, and a monition to all claimants to present their claims within a time fixed. The respondent, in response to the monition, filed his claim in the amount of $25,000 for damages resulting from the personal injuries referred to above. No other claim was filed.

Thereupon, respondent moved to dissolve the restraining order upon the ground that the state court had jurisdiction of the cause; that there was only one possible

Page 534

claimant and one owner, and that petitioner therefore might claim and obtain the advantage and benefit of the limitation of liability statute by proper pleading in the action pending in the state court. This motion the district court denied, and the cause in respect of respondent's claim was tried. Upon the hearing, the district court determined that it should first inquire whether there was any liability, and, if there was, then whether it should be limited; and, at the conclusion of respondent's evidence, without taking evidence on the part of petitioner, the court held that there was no liability, and entered a decree accordingly. 32 F.2d 284. Respondent appealed to the circuit court of appeals, and that court reversed the decree and remanded the case to the district court with directions to dismiss it for want of jurisdiction. 35 F.2d 447.

In the court of appeals, the decree was assailed upon the grounds (1) that, there being but one possible claim and one owner, the shipowner should have sought his remedy for a limitation of liability by proper pleading in the state court, and (2) that the record disclosed the privity and knowledge of the owner in respect of the matters and things by which the injury to respondent resulted. The court rejected the first contention upon the authority of White v. Island Transportation Co., 233 U.S. 346, but sustained the second, holding that the pleadings and evidence disclosed that the injury complained of was occasioned with the privity and knowledge of the shipowner, and consequently the district court was without jurisdiction.

We are of opinion that the second contention, upon which the decree below was predicated, did not present a jurisdictional question. The district court had jurisdiction to pass upon the sufficiency of the pleadings and to decide the question upon the evidence, and a determination thereof either way, whether right or wrong, would

Page 535

have been a determination by that court upon the merits in the [51 S.Ct. 245] proper exercise of its jurisdiction. Binderup v. Pathe Exchange, 263 U.S. 291, and cases cited; Moore v. N.Y. Cotton Exchange, 270 U.S. 593, 608. In the Binderup case, the rule was stated as follows (p...

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