317 U.S. 575 (1943), 269, Brady v. Roosevelt Steamship Co.

Docket Nº:No. 269
Citation:317 U.S. 575, 63 S.Ct. 425, 87 L.Ed. 471
Party Name:Brady v. Roosevelt Steamship Co.
Case Date:January 18, 1943
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 575

317 U.S. 575 (1943)

63 S.Ct. 425, 87 L.Ed. 471

Brady

v.

Roosevelt Steamship Co.

No. 269

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 18, 1943

Argued December 18, 1942

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. An action to recover for a death resulting from injuries sustained when a rung of a ladder broke as the decedent, a United States customs inspector, in the course of his official duties, was climbing to board a vessel docked at a pier, is within the admiralty jurisdiction. Pp. 576-577.

2. The Suits in Admiralty Act does not preclude a suit against a private corporation (none of whose stock is owned directly or indirectly by the United States) to recover damages for a maritime tort arising out of the negligent operation of a vessel owned by the United States Maritime Commission, and which the corporation operates under a contract made pursuant to § 707(c) of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, even though the contract may give to the corporation in such case a right of exoneration or indemnity against the Commission. Fleet Corporation v. Lustgarten, 280 U.S. 320, overruled pro tanto. Pp. 578, 582.

The Suits in Admiralty Act does not restrict the remedy in such case to a libel in personam against the United States or the Maritime Commission.

128 F.2d 169 reversed.

Certiorari, post, p. 609, to review the reversal of a judgment for the plaintiff in a suit against the steamship company to recover damages for the death of plaintiff's intestate.

Page 576

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

S.S. Unicoi was a vessel owned by the United States Maritime Commission and operated for it by respondent under a contract covering this and other vessels. The contract1 recites that it was made pursuant to § 707(c) of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, 49 Stat. 2009, 46 U.S.C. § 1197(c). See § 704, 46 U.S.C. § 1194, the Commission having advertised the line for charter and having failed to receive satisfactory bids. Respondent is a private corporation, none of whose stock is owned directly or indirectly by the United States.

The deceased was a United States customs inspector. While boarding the vessel on his official duties in July, 1938, a rung of the ladder which he was climbing broke. The injuries which resulted caused his death. At the time of the injury, the vessel was docked at a pier in New York City.

Page 577

Petitioner, the widow, sued as administratrix to recover damages for the benefit of herself and the children. That suit was brought in the New York Supreme Court, but removed to the federal District Court. Respondent moved to dismiss on the authority of Johnson v. Emergency Fleet Corp., 280 U.S. 320. That motion was denied, and a trial to a jury on the law side of the court was had. A verdict for petitioner was returned. On appeal, the judgment was reversed with directions to dismiss the complaint, one judge dissenting. The Circuit Court of Appeals stated in reaching that result that the Suits in Admiralty Act, 41 Stat. 525, 46 U.S.C. §§ 741, 742, as construed by the decision in the Johnson case, made the remedies afforded by that Act the exclusive ones, viz., a libel in personam against the United States or the Maritime Commission. 128 F.2d 169. We granted the petition for a writ of certiorari because of the public importance of the problem. 3 17 U.S. 609.

We agree with the court below that this was a maritime tort over which the admiralty court has jurisdiction. Vancouver S.S. Co. v. Rice, 288 U.S. 445; The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649. And we may assume that petitioner [63 S.Ct. 427] could have sued either the United States or the Commission under the Suits in Admiralty Act. In any event, such a suit would be the exclusive remedy in admiralty against either of them. Eastern Transportation Co. v. United States, 272 U.S. 675; Emergency Fleet Corp. v. Rosenberg Bros. & Co., 276 U.S. 202. And it is likewise clear that the action in admiralty afforded by § 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act is the only available remedy against the United States or a corporation whose entire outstanding capital stock is owned by the United States or its representatives. Johnson v. Emergency Fleet Corp., supra. The sole question here is whether the Suits in Admiralty Act makes private operators such as respondent nonsuable for their torts.

Page 578

Emergency Fleet Corp. v. Lustgarten, 280 U.S. 320, one of the three companion cases to the Johnson case, supports the view that it does. In that case, a merchant vessel, Coelleda, was owned by the United States and operated for it by the Consolidated Navigation Co. pursuant to a contract made through the Fleet Corporation. A seaman employed thereon sued the Fleet Corporation and the Consolidated Navigation Co. to recover damages for personal injuries sustained in that service. There was a judgment for the plaintiff which was affirmed on appeal. This Court reversed and remanded the cause with directions to dismiss. The Johnson case and the other two companion cases were suits against the Fleet Corporation or the United States. In one opinion dealing with all four cases, this Court said:

Directly or mediately, the money required to pay a judgment against any of the defendants in these cases would come out of the United States. It is the real party affected in all of these actions.

280 U.S. at 326-327. It added that the aim of uniformity would not be established

if suits under the Tucker Act and in the Court of Claims be allowed against the United States, and actions at law in state and federal courts be permitted against the Fleet Corporation or other agents for enforcement of the maritime causes of action covered by the act.

280 U.S. at 327. Accordingly, it concluded that "the remedies given by the act are exclusive in all cases where a libel might be filed under it." 280 U.S. at 327. These statements, coupled with the fact that the judgment in the Lustgarten case was reversed not only as respects the Fleet Corporation, but the Consolidated Navigation Co. as well, support the view adopted by the court below.

Our conclusion, however, is that that position is untenable, and that the Lustgarten case, so far as it would prevent a private operator from being sued under the circumstances of this case, must be considered as no longer controlling.

Page 579

There is ample support for the holding in the Johnson case that § 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act was intended to provide the only available remedy against the United States or its wholly owned corporations for enforcement of maritime causes of action covered by the Act. But there is not the slightest intimation or suggestion in the history of that Act that it was designed to abolish all remedies which might exist against a private company for torts committed during its operation of government vessels under agency agreements.

Sec. 1 of the Suits in Admiralty Act provides that no vessel owned by the United States or a governmental corporation or "operated by or for the United States or such corporation" shall be "subject to arrest or seizure by judicial process in the United States or its possessions." That section was designed to avoid the inconvenience, expense and delay resulting from the holdings in The Florence H., 248 F. 1012, and The Lake Monroe, 250 U.S. 246, that libel in rem would lie against vessels owned by the United States. See S.Rep. No. 223, 66th Cong., 1st Sess.; H.Rep. No. 497, 66th Cong., 2d Sess. The wording of that section makes clear that the right to arrest or seize the vessel was taken away whether the vessel was operated by the United States or its wholly owned corporation or for either of them by a private company. To that extent, the Act affects remedies which would otherwise exist on maritime [63 S.Ct. 428] causes of action arising out of operation of government vessels by private companies for the United States or its wholly owned corporations. Yet there is no indication whatsoever that it went further and took away any personal remedy which a tort claimant might have against such a private operator. While § 1 abolishes the right to arrest or seize the vessel, § 2 provides that "a libel in personam may be brought against the United States or against such corporation" in cases where, "if such vessel were privately owned or operated . . . , a proceeding in

Page 580

admiralty could be maintained." Sec. 2, however, does not mention private operators. Nor do the Committee Reports advert to private operators except as they may be affected by § 1. The liability of an agent for his own negligence has long...

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