300 U.S. 342 (1937), 460, Van Beeck v. Sabine Towing Co., Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 460
Citation:300 U.S. 342, 57 S.Ct. 452, 81 L.Ed. 685
Party Name:Van Beeck v. Sabine Towing Co., Inc.
Case Date:March 01, 1937
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 342

300 U.S. 342 (1937)

57 S.Ct. 452, 81 L.Ed. 685

Van Beeck


Sabine Towing Co., Inc.

No. 460

United States Supreme Court

March 1, 1937

Argued February 5, 8, 1937




1. The cause of action provided by the Merchant Marine Act, 46 U.S.C. 688, in connection with the Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, on behalf of survivors or dependents of a seaman who has suffered death by reason of his employer's negligence, is not to be confused with any cause of action that may have accrued to the seaman himself between the time of his injury and the time of his death, but is a new cause of action, enforceable by his personal representative for the beneficiary in which the recovery is limited to the pecuniary loss sustained by the beneficiary, through the death, as contrasted with the personal loss and suffering sustained by the decedent before his death. Pp. 344, 346.

2. A suit brought under the Merchant Marine Act, 46 U.S.C. 688, and the Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, by the administrator of a deceased mariner to compensate decedent's mother for loss caused to her by his instantaneous death through his employer's negligence does not abate at her death, but may be continued by the administrator of his estate (or by the administrator de bonis non if she was the administrator) for the recovery of her pecuniary loss up to the moment of her death, the damages, when collected, to be paid to her estate. Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. Wells-Dickey Trust Co., 275 U.S. 161, distinguished. P. 347.

3. This case is not affected by statutes which regulate the continuance of a proceeding in a court of the United States by the substitution of the executor or administrator of a party dying while the suit is pending. 28 U.S.C. 778. P. 350.

85 F.2d 478 reversed.

Certiorari, 299 U.S. 535, to review the affirmance of a judgment dismissing an action by the administrator of a deceased seaman to recover for the loss sustained by the decedent's mother on account of his death.

Page 343

CARDOZO, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE CARDOZO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (June 5, 1920, c. 250, § 33, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U.S.C. § 688) gives a cause of action for damages to the personal representative of a seaman who has suffered death in the course of his employment by reason of his employer's negligence. The question is whether the liability abates where the beneficiary of the cause of action, in this case the mother [57 S.Ct. 453] of the seaman, dies during the pendency of a suit in her behalf.

The steam towboat, Edgar F. Coney, sank on January 28, 1930, with the loss of all on board. The respondent Sabine Towing Company, Inc., the owner of the boat, filed a libel in a United States District Court in Texas for the limitation of liability. In that proceeding, claims for damages were filed by the personal representatives of several members of the crew. Among such claims was one for the pecuniary damage suffered through the death of the second mate of the vessel, Edward C. Van Beeck. He died unmarried, leaving a mother and several brothers. There being neither wife nor child nor father, the mother was the sole beneficiary of the statutory cause of action. This results from the provisions of the Employers' Liability Act (45 U.S.C. § 51) governing injuries to railway employees, which is made applicable by the Merchant Marine Act in case of injuries to seamen. Cf. Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, 287 U.S. 367, 376. The mother was appointed administratrix of her son's estate, and, acting as such administratrix, filed her claim for damages.

Page 344

She died in July, 1931, and thereupon the petitioner, a brother of the dead seaman, succeeded to her office by appointment duly made, and was substituted as claimant in the pending suit. In that suit, a Commissioner reported that the mother had suffered loss, up to the time of her death, in the sum of $700, and that there should be an award of that amount for the use of her estate. The District Court dismissed the claim on the ground that, at her death, the liability abated, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. 85 F.2d 478. To settle the meaning of an important act of Congress, we granted certiorari.

The statutory cause of action to recover damages for death ushered in a new policy and broke with old traditions. Its meaning is likely to be misread if shreds of the discarded policy are treated as still clinging to it and narrowing its scope. The case of Higgins v. Butcher, Noy 18; Yelv. 89, which arose in the King's Bench in 1606, is the starting point of the rule, long accepted in our law, though at times with mutterings of disapproval,1 that in an action of tort damages are not recoverable by anyone for the death of a human being.2 The rule is often viewed as a derivative of the formula "actio personalis moritur cum persona," a maxim which "is one of some antiquity," though "its origin is obscure and post-classical."3 Even in classical times, however, the Roman law enforced the principle that "no action of an essentially

Page 345

penal character could be commenced after the death of the person responsible for the injury."4 Vengeance, though permissible during life, was not to "reach beyond the grave."5 There was also an accepted doctrine that no money value could be put on the life of a freeman.6 The post-classical maxim, taken up by Coke and his successors,7 gave a new currency to these teachings of the Digest, and, it seems, a new extension.8 But the denial of a cause of action for wrongs producing death has been ascribed to other sources also. The explanation has been found at times in the common law notion that trespass as a civil wrong is drowned in a felony.9 As to the adequacy of this explanation, grave doubt has been expressed. [57 S.Ct. 454]10 Nonetheless, the rule as to felony merger seems to have coalesced, even if in a confused way, with the rule as to abatement,11 and the effect of the two in combination was to fasten upon the law a doctrine which it took a series of statutes to dislodge.

Page 346

The adoption of Lord Campbell's Act in 1846 (9 & 10 Vict. c. 93), giving an action to the executor for the use of wife, husband, parent, or child, marks the dawn of a new era. In this country, statutes substantially the same in tenor followed in quick succession in one state after another, till today there is not a state of the union in which a remedy is lacking.12 Congress joined in the procession, first with the Employers' Liability Act for railway employees (45 U.S.C. §§ 51-59), next with the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 for seamen and their survivors (46 U.S.C. § 688), and again with an act of the same year (March 30, 1920, c. 111, §§ 1, 2, 41 Stat. 537, 46 U.S.C. §§ 761, 762), not limited to seamen, which states the legal consequences of death upon the high seas.

As already pointed out, the personal representative of a seaman laying claim to damages under the Merchant Marine Act is to have the benefit of "all statutes of the United States conferring or regulating the right of action for death in the case of railway employees." 46 U.S.C. § 688. The statutes thus referred to as a standard display a double aspect. One of these is visible in the Employers' Liability Act as it stood when first enacted in 1908. Under the law as then in force (April 22, 1908, c. 149, § 1, 35 Stat. 65, 45 U.S.C. § 51), the personal representative does not step into the shoes of the employee, recovering the damages that would have been his if he had lived. On the contrary, by § 1 of the statute, a new cause of action is created for the benefit of survivors or dependents of designated classes, the recovery being limited to the losses sustained by them, as contrasted with any losses sustained by the decedent.13

Page 347

However, with the adoption of an amendment in 1910 (April 5, 1910, c. 143, § 2, 36 Stat. 291, 45 U.S.C. § 59), a new aspect of the statute emerges into view. Section 2, as then enacted, continues any cause of action belonging to the decedent, without abrogating or diminishing the then existing cause of action for the use of his survivors.14

Although originating in the same wrongful act or neglect, the two claims are quite distinct, no part of either being embraced in the other. One is for the wrong to the injured person, and is confined to his personal loss and suffering before he died, while the other is for the wrong to the beneficiaries, and is confined to their pecuniary loss through his death.15

It is loss of this last order, and no other, that is the subject of the present suit. So far as the record shows, the seaman died at once upon the sinking of the vessel. In any event, there is no claim that his injuries were not immediately fatal.16 To what extent the present problem would be altered if intermediate loss and suffering had been made the basis of [57 S.Ct. 455] a recovery we have no occasion to consider. Our decision must be limited to the necessities of the case before us.

Viewing the cause of action as one to compensate a mother for the pecuniary loss caused to her by the negligent killing of her son, we think the mother's death does not abate the suit, but that the administrator may continue it, for the recovery of her loss up to the moment of her death, though not for anything thereafter,17 the damages when collected to be paid to her estate. Such is the rule in many of the state courts in which like statutes are in force. It is the rule in New York, in Pennsylvania, in New Jersey, in Oklahoma, in Georgia, in

Page 348

Kentucky, in North Carolina, and, under statutes somewhat different, in Connecticut and Massachusetts.18 It is also the rule in the lower federal courts, applying the statute of Illinois as well as the Act of Congress in respect of death upon the high seas....

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