317 U.S. 239 (1942), 67, Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 67
Citation:317 U.S. 239, 63 S.Ct. 246, 87 L.Ed. 239
Party Name:Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co, Inc.
Case Date:December 14, 1942
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 239

317 U.S. 239 (1942)

63 S.Ct. 246, 87 L.Ed. 239



Moore-McCormack Co, Inc.

No. 67

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 14, 1942

Argued November 12, 1942



1. In a suit by a seaman in a state court for damages under § 33 of the Merchant Marine Act and for maintenance and cure, the rights of the parties are measured by the federal statute and admiralty principles. P. 243.

2. The question whether a state court, in an action for damages under § 33 of the Merchant Marine Act and for maintenance and cure, protected all the substantial rights of the parties under controlling federal law is a federal question reviewable under § 237(b) of the Judicial Code. P. 245.

3. A shipowner who, in defense of an action by a seaman for personal injuries, sets up the seaman's release is under the burden of proving that it was executed freely, without deception or coercion, and that it was made by the seaman with full understanding of his rights. The adequacy of the consideration and the nature of the medical and legal advice available to the seaman at the time of signing the release are relevant to an appraisal of this understanding. P. 246.

4. This general admiralty rule applies not only to actions for maintenance and cure, but also to actions for damages under § 33 of the Merchant Marine Act. P. 248.

5. Section 33 of the Merchant Marine Act is to be liberally construed for the seaman's protection; it is an integral part of the maritime law, and rights fashioned by it are to be implemented by admiralty rules not inconsistent with the Act. P. 248.

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6. The right of a seaman suing in a Pennsylvania court under § 33 of the Merchant Marine Act to be free from the burden of proof imposed by Pennsylvania law upon one attacking the validity of a written release is a substantive right inherent in his cause of action. P. 249.

344 Pa. 69, 23 A.2d 503, reversed.

Certiorari, 316 U.S. 656, to review the affirmance of a judgment non obstante veredicto rendered against the present petitioner in a suit for damages and for maintenance and cure.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was injured while working as a seaman for respondent on a vessel traveling between the United States and European ports, and spent a number of months in hospitals in Gdynia, Poland, and in the United States. He brought this suit in a Pennsylvania State Court for damages pursuant to Section 33 of the Merchant Marine (Jones) Act,1 and for maintenance and cure.2 The Pennsylvania courts, as this litigation evidences, are apparently quite willing to make themselves available for the enforcement of these rights.

Petitioner attributed his condition to a blow by a hatch cover which allegedly fell on him through respondent's

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negligence. Respondent joined issue generally, contested the extent of any injuries received, and further contended that, if serious injuries did exist, they were caused by a fight in Copenhagen or by accidents prior to the voyage. As an additional defense, the respondent also alleged that, for a consideration of $100, petitioner had executed a full [63 S.Ct. 249] release. Denying that he had any knowledge of having signed such an instrument, the petitioner asserted that, if his name appeared on it, his signature was obtained through fraud and misrepresentation, and without "legal, binding and valid consideration."

The petitioner did execute a release for $100 several days after his return to this country. His testimony was that his discussion with respondent's claim agent took place while he was under the influence of drugs taken to allay the pain of his injury, that he was threatened with imprisonment if he did not sign as directed, and that he considered the $100 a payment of wages.3 The respondent's evidence was that the $100 was paid not for wages but to settle all claims growing out of the petitioner's injuries, that the petitioner had not appeared to be under the influence of drugs, and that no threats of any kind were made.

Upon this and much other evidence relating to the cause and extent of the injuries, the jury rendered a verdict for the petitioner for $3,000 under the Jones Act and $1,000 for maintenance and cure.

Respondent made a motion for a new trial and judgment non obstante veredicto which, under the Pennsylvania

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practice, was submitted to the trial court en banc.4 That court gave judgment to the defendant non obstante veredicto, not upon an appraisal of disputed questions of fact concerning the accident, but because of a conclusion that petitioner had failed to sustain the burden of proof required under Pennsylvania law to invalidate the release. It conceded that, "in Admiralty cases, the responsibility is on the defendant to sustain a release, rather than on a plaintiff to overcome it," but concluded that, since petitioner had chosen to bring his action in a state, rather than in an admiralty court, his case must be governed by local, rather than admiralty, principles. Under the Pennsylvania rule, one who attacks the validity of a written release has the burden of sustaining his allegation by "clear, precise, and indubitable" evidence, meaning evidence "that is not only found to be credible, but of such weight and directness as to make out the facts alleged beyond a reasonable doubt." Witnesses who testify against the release must not only be credible, but "distinctly remember the facts to which they testify and narrate the details exactly." The court held that, since the petitioner had not sustained this burden of proof, the trial judge should have withdrawn the case from the jury.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania took a somewhat different view. It held that, in an action of this sort, the Pennsylvania court was obligated "to apply the federal law creating the right of action in the same sense in which it would have been applied in the federal courts." However, it affirmed the judgment in the belief that the rule as to burden of proof on releases does not affect the substantive rights of the parties, but is merely procedural, and is therefore controlled by state law.

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I. Respondent's argument that the Pennsylvania court should have applied state, rather than admiralty, law in measuring the rights of parties cannot be sustained.

We do not have in this case an effort of the state court to enforce rights claimed to be rooted in state law. The petitioner's suit rested on asserted rights granted by federal law, and the state courts so treated it. Jurisdiction of the state court to try this case rests solely upon Sec. 33 of the Jones Act and upon statutes traceable to the Judiciary Act of 1789 which, in "all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction," saves to suitors "the [63 S.Ct. 250] right of a common law remedy where the common law is competent to give it."5 These statutes authorize Pennsylvania courts to try cases coming within the defined category.6 Whether Pennsylvania was required by the acts to make its courts available for those federal remedies, or whether it could create its own remedy as to maintenance and cure based on local law, we need not decide,7 for, having voluntarily opened its courts to petitioner, the questions are whether Pennsylvania was thereupon required to give to petitioner the full benefit of federal law, and, if so, whether it failed to afford that benefit.

There is no dearth of example of the obligation on law courts which attempt to enforce substantive rights arising from admiralty law to do so in a manner conforming to admiralty practice. Contributory negligence is not a barrier to a proceeding in admiralty or under the Jones Act, and the state courts are required to apply this rule in Jones

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Act actions. Beadle v. Spencer, 298 U.S. 124. Similarly, state courts may not apply their doctrines of assumption of risk in actions arising under the Act. The Arizona, 298 U.S. 110; Socony-Vacuum Co. v. Smith, 305 U.S. 424. State courts, whether or not applying the Jones Act to actions arising from maritime torts, have usually attempted, although not always with complete success, to apply admiralty principles.8 The federal courts, when treating maritime torts in actions at law, rather than as suits in admiralty, have also sought to preserve admiralty principles whenever consonant with the necessities of common law procedure.9

This Court has specifically held that the Jones Act is to have a uniform application throughout the country unaffected by "local views of common law rules." Panama R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 375, 392. The Act is based upon and incorporates by reference the Federal Employers' Liability Act, which also requires uniform interpretation. Second Employers Liability Cases, 223 U.S. 1, 55 et seq. This uniformity requirement extends to the type of proof necessary for judgment. New Orleans & Northeastern R. Co. v. Harris, 247 U.S. 367.

In many other cases, this Court has declared the necessary dominance of admiralty principles in actions in vindication of rights arising from admiralty law.10 Belden v.

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Chase, 150 U.S. 674, an 1893 decision which respondent relies upon as establishing a contrary [63 S.Ct. 251] rule, has never been thus considered in any of the later cases cited.

It must be remembered that the state courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the federal courts to try actions either under the Merchant Marine Act or in personam such as maintenance and...

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