345 U.S. 571 (1953), 226, Lauritzen v. Larsen

Docket Nº:No. 226
Citation:345 U.S. 571, 73 S.Ct. 921, 97 L.Ed. 1254
Party Name:Lauritzen v. Larsen
Case Date:May 25, 1953
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 571

345 U.S. 571 (1953)

73 S.Ct. 921, 97 L.Ed. 1254




No. 226

United States Supreme Court

May 25, 1953

Argued January 6, 1953




1. In this suit in personam under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688, in a federal district court in New York, by a foreign seaman against a foreign shipowner for an injury sustained in a foreign port, process was served on defendant in New York and defendant appeared generally and answered.

Held: the court had jurisdiction to determine whether the asserted cause of action was well founded. Pp. 574-575.

2. While temporarily in New York, a Danish seaman joined the crew of a ship of Danish flag and registry owned by a Danish citizen. The seaman signed ship's articles providing that the rights of crew members would be governed by Danish law and by the employer's contract with the Danish Seamen's Union, of which the seaman was a member. He was negligently injured aboard the ship, in the course of his employment, while in Havana harbor. He sued the ship's owner in a federal district court in New York for damages under the Jones Act.

Held: the Jones Act was inapplicable. Pp. 573-593.

(a) Allowance of an additional remedy under the Jones Act would conflict sharply with the policy and letter of Danish law. Pp. 575-576.

(b) By usage as old as the Nation, shipping laws of the United States written in all-inclusive general terms have been construed to apply only to areas and transactions in which American law would be considered operative under prevalent doctrines of international law. Pp. 576-579.

(c) The locality test affords no support for the application of American law in this case, since the injury occurred on a Danish ship in Cuban waters. Pp. 583-584.

(d) It is settled American doctrine that the law of the flag governs all matters of discipline on a ship and all things done on board which affect only the ship and those belonging to her, and which do not involve the peace and dignity of the country or the tranquillity of the port. Pp. 584-586.

(e) The seaman's presence in New York was transitory, and created no such national interest in, or duty toward, him as to justify application of the Jones Act. Pp. 586-587.

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(f) The utmost liberality in disregarding the formality of a ship's registration in a country other than that of the allegiance of its owner does not support application of American law in this case. Pp. 587-588.

(g) That the contract of employment was made in New York does not require a different result, since the place of contract is not a substantial influence in the choice between competing laws to govern a maritime tort, and the contract itself validly provided for application of Danish law. Pp. 587-589.

(h) Justice does not require adjudication of this case under American law to save this seaman expense and loss of time in returning to a foreign forum. Pp. 589-590.

(i) That an American forum has perfected its jurisdiction over the parties and that the defendant does frequent and regular business in the forum state does not justify application of the law of the forum in this case. Pp. 590-593.

196 F.2d 220, reversed.

A federal district court awarded respondent a judgment against petitioner for damages under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. § 688. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 196 F.2d 220. This Court granted certiorari. 344 U.S. 810. Reversed and remanded, p. 593.

Page 573

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The key issue in this case is whether statutes of the United States should be applied to this claim of maritime tort. Larsen, a Danish seaman, while temporarily in New York joined the crew of the Randa, a ship of Danish flag and registry, owned by petitioner, a Danish citizen. Larsen signed ship's articles, written in Danish, providing that the rights of crew members would be governed by Danish law and by the employer's contract with the Danish Seamen's Union, of which Larsen was a member. He was negligently injured aboard the Randa in the course of employment, while in Havana harbor.

Respondent brought suit under the Jones Act1 on the law side of the District Court [73 S.Ct. 924] for the Southern District of New York, and demanded a jury. Petitioner contended that Danish law was applicable, and that, under it, respondent had received all of the compensation to which he was entitled. He also contested the court's jurisdiction. Entertaining the cause, the court ruled that American, rather than Danish, law applied, and the jury rendered a verdict of $4,267.50. The Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, affirmed.2 Its decision, at least superficially, is at variance with its own earlier ones.3 and

Page 574

conflicts with one by the New York Court of Appeals.4 We granted certiorari.5

The question of jurisdiction is shortly answered. A suit to recover damages under the Jones Act is in personam against the ship's owner, and not one in rem against the ship itself.6 The defendant appeared generally, answered, and tendered no objection to jurisdiction of

Page 575

his person. As frequently happens, a contention that there is some barrier to granting plaintiff's claim is cast in terms of an exception to jurisdiction of subject matter. A cause of action under our law was asserted here, and the court had power to determine whether it was or was not well founded in law and in fact. Cf. Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. v. Northwestern Public Service Co., 341 U.S. 246, 249.

Denmark has enacted a comprehensive code to govern the relations of her shipowners to her seagoing labor which, by its terms, and intentions controls this claim. Though it is not for us to decide, it is plausibly contended that all obligations of the owner growing out of Danish law have been performed or tendered to this seaman. The shipowner, supported here by the Danish Government, asserts that the Danish law supplies the full measure of his obligation, and that maritime usage and international law as accepted by the United [73 S.Ct. 925] States exclude the application of our incompatible statute.

That allowance of an additional remedy under our Jones Act would sharply conflict with the policy and letter of Danish law is plain from a general comparison of the two systems of dealing with shipboard accidents. Both assure the ill or injured seafaring worker the conventional maintenance and cure at the shipowner's cost, regardless of fault or negligence on the part of anyone. But, while we limit this to the period within which maximum possible cure can be effected, Farrell v. United States, 336 U.S. 511, the Danish law limits it to a fixed period of twelve weeks, and the monetary measurement is different. The two systems are in sharpest conflict as to treatment of claims for disability, partial or complete, which are permanent, or which outlast the liability for maintenance and cure, to which class this claim belongs. Such injuries Danish law relieves under a state-operated plan similar to our workmen's compensation

Page 576

systems. Claims for such disability are not made against the owner, but against the state's Directorate of Insurance Against the Consequences of Accidents. They may be presented directly or through any Danish Consulate. They are allowed by administrative action, not by litigation, and depend not upon fault or negligence, but only on the fact of injury and the extent of disability. Our own law, apart from indemnity for injury caused by the ship's unseaworthiness, makes no such compensation for such disability in the absence of fault or negligence. But, when such fault or negligence is established by litigation, it allows recovery for elements such as pain and suffering not compensated under Danish law, and lets the damages be fixed by jury. In this case, since negligence was found, United States law permits a larger recovery than Danish law. If the same injury were sustained but negligence was absent or not provable, the Danish law would appear to provide compensation where ours would not.

Respondent does not deny that Danish law is applicable to his case. The contention as stated in his brief is, rather, that "A claimant may select whatever forum he desires, and receive the benefits resulting from such choice," and "[a] ship owner is liable under the laws of the forum where he does business as well as in his own country." This contention that the Jones Act provides an optional cumulative remedy is not based on any explicit terms of the Act, which makes no provision for cases in which remedies have been obtained or are obtainable under foreign law. Rather, he relies upon the literal catholicity of its terminology. If read literally, Congress has conferred an American right of action which requires nothing more than that plaintiff be "any seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment." It makes no explicit requirement that either

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the seaman, the employment or the injury have the slightest connection with the United States. Unless some relationship of one or more of these to our national interest is implied, Congress has extended our law and opened our courts to all alien seafaring men injured anywhere in the world in service of watercraft of every foreign nation -- a hand on a Chinese junk, never outside Chinese waters, would not be beyond its literal wording.

But Congress, in 1920, wrote these all-comprehending words not on a clean slate, but as a postscript to a long series of enactments governing shipping. All were enacted with regard to a seasoned body of maritime law developed by the experience of American courts long accustomed to dealing with admiralty problems in reconciling our own with foreign interests and in accommodating the reach of our own laws to those of other maritime nations.

The shipping laws of the United States, set...

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