321 U.S. 96 (1944), 200, Mahnich v. Southern Steamship Co.

Docket Nº:No. 200
Citation:321 U.S. 96, 64 S.Ct. 455, 88 L.Ed. 561
Party Name:Mahnich v. Southern Steamship Co.
Case Date:January 31, 1944
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 96

321 U.S. 96 (1944)

64 S.Ct. 455, 88 L.Ed. 561

Mahnich

v.

Southern Steamship Co.

No. 200

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 31, 1944

Argued January 5, 1944

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. A finding of seaworthiness by a district court sitting in admiralty is usually a finding of fact, which will not be reviewed here if the two courts below concurred in it. But the finding of seaworthiness in this case is reviewable here, since both courts below, holding themselves bound by a previous decision of this Court, reached that conclusion as a matter of law. P. 98.

2. A vessel and its owner are liable to indemnify a seaman for injury caused by unseaworthiness of the vessel or its appurtenant appliances and equipment. P. 99.

3. A seaman who was injured on shipboard when the staging on which he was working fell as a result of a break in defective rope with which it was rigged is entitled under the maritime law to indemnity from the shipowner for breach of the warranty of seaworthiness. P. 103.

The owner is not relieved of liability in such case by the fact that the use of the defective rope in rigging the staging was due to the negligence of the ship's officers or of fellow servants of the seaman, for the owner's duty to furnish the seaman with safe appliances and a safe place to work is nondelegable; nor is the owner relieved by the fact that there was sound rope aboard, which could have been used in rigging the staging, for the owner's duty is to furnish the seaman with safe appliances for use in his work when and where it is to be done.

4. Plamals v. The Pinar Del Rio, 277 U.S. 151, to the extent that it conflicts herewith, is disapproved. P. 105.

135 F.2d 602 reversed.

Certiorari, 320 U.S. 725, to review the affirmance of a decree, 45 F.Supp. 839, denying recovery in an action in admiralty for indemnity for injuries.

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STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, a seaman on respondent's vessel, the "Wichita Falls," was injured, while at sea, by a fall from a staging, which gave way when a piece of defective rope supporting it parted. The rope was supplied by the mate when there was ample sound rope available for use in rigging the staging. The question is whether the defect in the staging was a breach of the warranty of seaworthiness rendering the owner liable to indemnify the seaman for his injury.

Petitioner brought this suit in personam in admiralty in the District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania to recover indemnity and maintenance and cure. On the trial, the evidence showed that the mate ordered petitioner to paint the bridge and to stand on the staging for that purpose. The staging consisted of a board supported at both ends by rope which, if sound, was sufficient in strength to sustain the stage and its load. The boatswain, by direction of the mate, had cut the rope for the staging from a coil, which had been stored for two years in the Lyle gun box. The rope, intended for use with the Lyle life-saving apparatus, had never been used. There was testimony that it had been examined and tested by the boatswain and the mate and that it was generally sound in appearance. After the accident, examination of the rope at the point where it broke showed that it was so rotten as to be inadequate to support the strain imposed upon it.

The trial judge concluded from the evidence that there was sound rope on board available for rigging the staging. He found that there was no fault in the manner in which the stage had been rigged, but that the rope selected by the mate was defective, and that petitioner's injury was attributable to the negligence of the boatswain and the

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mate in failing to observe the defect.1 He held that the proceeding was brought too late to recover for the negligence under the Jones Act, and that the "Wichita Falls" was not unseaworthy by reason of the defective rope used in rigging the staging, citing Plamals v. The Pinar Del Rio, 277 U.S. 151, 155. He accordingly denied indemnity to petitioner, but gave judgment in his favor for maintenance and cure.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, 129 F.2d 857, 135 F.2d 602, by a divided court, resting its decision on the statement quoted from the opinion in The Pinar Del Rio, supra, 155, that

The record does not support the suggestion that the "Pinar Del Rio" was unseaworthy. The mate selected a bad rope when good ones were available.

We granted certiorari, 320 U.S. 725, upon a petition which urged that the [64 S.Ct. 457] statement quoted from The Pinar Del Rio, supra, does not rule this case, and that the decision below is inconsistent with the decisions in The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, and in Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. v. Smith, 305 U.S. 424.

The sole issue presented by the petition for certiorari is that of respondent's liability to indemnify petitioner for the injury suffered by reason of the defective staging. No question is raised with respect to petitioner's right to recover under the Jones Act or his right to the award of maintenance and cure or its adequacy.

A finding of seaworthiness is usually a finding of fact. Luckenbach v. McCahan Sugar Refining Co., 248 U.S. 139, 145; Steel v. State Line S.S. Co., L.R. 3 A.C. 72, 81, 82, 90, 91. Ordinarily we do not, in admiralty, more than in other

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cases, review the concurrent findings of fact of two courts below. The Camb Prince, 170 U.S. 655, 658; The Wilderoft, 201 U.S. 378, 387; Luckenbach v. McCahan Sugar Refining Co., supra; Piedmont & George's Creek Coal Co. v. Seaboard Fisheries Co., 254 U.S. 1, 13; Just v. Chambers, 312 U.S. 383, 385. Here, however, both courts below, holding themselves bound by The Pinar Del Rio, supra, have, on the facts found, held as a matter of law that the staging was seaworthy despite its defect. That conclusion of law is reviewable here.

Until the enactment of the Jones Act, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U.S.C. § 688, the maritime law afforded no remedy by way of indemnity beyond maintenance and cure, for the injury to a seaman caused by the mere negligence of a ship's officer or member of the crew. But the admiralty rule that the vessel and owner are liable to indemnify a seaman for injury caused by unseaworthiness of the vessel or its appurtenant appliances and equipment has been the settled law since this Court's ruling to that effect in The Osceola, supra, 175. Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., 247 U.S. 372, 380-381; Carlisle Packing Co. v. Sandanger, 259 U.S. 255, 258, 260; Pacific S.S. Co. v. Peterson, 278 U.S. 130, 134; Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, 287 U.S. 367, 370-371; Warner v. Goltra, 293 U.S. 155, 158; The Arizona v. Anelich, 298 U.S. 110, 120 et seq.; Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. v. Smith supra, 428-429; O'Donnell v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 318 U.S. 36, 40. The latter rule seems to have been derived from the seaman's privilege to abandon a ship improperly fitted out, and was generally applied, before its statement in The Osceola, supra, by numerous decisions of the lower federal courts during the last century. See The Arizona v. Anelich, supra, at 121, footnote 2.

This was a recognized departure from the rule of the English law, which allowed no recovery other than maintenance and cure for injuries caused by unseaworthiness, Couch v. Steel, 3 El. & Bl. 402, until the enactment of the

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Merchant Shipping Act of 1876, 39 & 40 Vict. Chap. 80, § 5, reenacted by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, 57 & 58 Vict., Chap. 60, § 458. By that statute, there is annexed to every contract of service between the owner of a ship or the master and any seaman thereof, an obligation that all reasonable means be used to insure the seaworthiness of the ship before and during the voyage. See Hedley v. Pinkney Steamship Co., [1894] A.C. 222.

In a number of cases in the federal courts, decided before The Osceola, supra, the right of the seaman to recover for injuries caused by unseaworthiness seems to have been rested on the negligent failure, usually by the seaman's officers or fellow seamen, to supply seaworthy appliances. The Noddleburn, 28 F. 855, aff'd, 30 F. 142; The Neptuno, 30 F. 925; The Frank and Willie, 45 F. 494; The Julia Fowler, 49 F. 277; William Johnson & Co. v. Johansen, 86 F. 886, and see The Columbia, 124 F. 745; The Lyndhurst, 149 F. 900. But later cases in this and other [64 S.Ct. 458] federal courts have followed the ruling of The Osceola, supra, that the exercise of due diligence does not relieve the owner of his obligation to the seaman to furnish adequate appliances.2 Carlisle Packing Co. v. Sandanger, supra, 259-260; The Arizona v. Anelich, supra, 120 et seq.; Beadle v. Spencer, 298 U.S. 124, 128-129; Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. v. Smith, supra, 428-429, 432; The H. A. Scandrett, 87 F.2d 708, 710, 711; cf. The Edwin I. Morrison, 153 U.S. 199, 210.

If the owner is liable for furnishing an unseaworthy appliance, even when he is not negligent, a fortiori his obligation is unaffected by the fact that the negligence of the officers of the vessel contributed to its unseaworthiness.

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It is true that, before the Jones Act, the owner was, in other respects, not responsible for injuries to a seaman caused by the negligence of officers or members of the crew. But this is not sufficient to insulate the owner from liability for their negligent failure to furnish seaworthy appliances, see Judge Addison Brown in The Frank and Willie, supra, 495-497; Carlisle Packing Co. v. Sandanger, supra, 259-260, more than their negligence relieves him from his liability for maintenance and cure. The Osceola, supra, 175; Pacific S.S. Co. v. Peterson, supra, 134; Calmar S.S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 527.

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