357 U.S. 221 (1958), 83, McAllister v. Magnolia Petroleum Co.

Docket Nº:No. 83
Citation:357 U.S. 221, 78 S.Ct. 1201, 2 L.Ed.2d 1272
Party Name:McAllister v. Magnolia Petroleum Co.
Case Date:June 23, 1958
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 221

357 U.S. 221 (1958)

78 S.Ct. 1201, 2 L.Ed.2d 1272



Magnolia Petroleum Co.

No. 83

United States Supreme Court

June 23, 1958

Argued April 1, 1958




1. Where an action for unseaworthiness is combined with an action under the Jones Act, a court cannot apply to the former a shorter period of limitations than Congress has prescribed for the latter. Pp. 221-226.

2. In this case, the trial judge's instructions to the jury on the issue of unseaworthiness were erroneous, since they carried the incorrect implication that petitioner could recover for unseaworthiness only if the defect was of such quality that it rendered the whole vessel unfit for the purpose for which it was intended. Pp. 226-227.

290 S.W.2d 313, judgment vacated and cause remanded.

WARREN, J., lead opinion

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

The question in this case is whether a state court may apply its two-year statute of limitations to bar an unseaworthiness action that is joined with an action for negligence under the Jones Act.

Petitioner was a member of the crew of a vessel owned and operated by respondent. His back was injured Oct. 19, 1950, when he slipped and fell down a stairway leading from the lounge to the galley. He reported the injury, and the ship's log book supports his allegation that the steps were wet. At the termination of the voyage, petitioner consulted a doctor about the pain and

Page 222

stiffness in his back. Intermittent medical attention failed to arrest a deteriorating condition. In March, 1953, a specialist in orthopedics diagnosed the difficulty as ruptured discs between the vertebrae. By July 6, 1953, petitioner could no longer perform his duties aboard respondent's vessel, and, on that date, he entered a United States Public Health Marine Hospital as an injured seaman. After his discharge, he consulted an attorney and this state court action was filed Aug. 27, 1953, in [78 S.Ct. 1203] the District Court of Dallas County, Texas

Petitioner claimed damages under the Jones Act for negligence1 and under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness. He also asked for maintenance and cure under the general maritime law. He alleged that the portholes and deck at the head of the stairs were not watertight, that they allowed water to accumulate on the stairs, and that this condition was the proximate cause of his fall. Respondent's answer denied the allegations of negligence and unseaworthiness, and averred that petitioner's claims were barred by the pertinent statutes of limitations and by laches. The trial court ruled that the actions were not barred, and, after hearing evidence, submitted all three claims to the jury.2 The jury returned special verdicts importing the following findings: petitioner was injured while attempting to walk down the stairs in question; the portholes and deck above and near

Page 223

the stairs were not watertight; these defects were not due to the negligence of respondents; and the condition did not make the vessel unseaworthy.3 Pursuant to these findings, the trial court entered judgment for respondent on the Jones Act and unseaworthiness counts, and awarded petitioner $6,258 for maintenance and cure.

Both parties appealed to the Texas Court of Civil Appeals. Respondent sought to overturn the award for maintenance and cure, but the trial court's decision in that respect was affirmed, and that portion of the case is not before us. Petitioner took no appeal from the judgment so far as it concerned his claim under the Jones Act, so that portion of the case is also outside the scope of our review. Limiting his appeal to the unseaworthiness aspect of his case, petitioner assigned errors in admitting evidence and in instructing the jury. The Court of Civil Appeals found it unnecessary to rule upon these questions, for, in its opinion, the unseaworthiness action was barred by the two-year Texas statute of limitations pertaining to actions for personal injuries.4 290 S.W.2d 313. The Texas Supreme Court refused petitioner's application for writ of error. In view of the importance of this ruling for maritime personal injury litigation in the state courts, we granted petitioner's motion for leave

Page 224

to proceed in forma pauperis, and granted certiorari. 352 U.S. 1000.

In the view we take of this case, it is unnecessary for us to decide the broad question of whether a state court is free to apply its own statutes of limitation to an admiralty right of action for which no special limitation is prescribed, [78 S.Ct. 1204] or whether it is bound to determine the timeliness of such actions by the admiralty doctrine of laches.5 For the reasons stated hereafter, we simply hold that, where an action for unseaworthiness is combined with an action under the Jones Act, a court cannot apply to the former a shorter period of limitations than Congress has prescribed for the latter. We think this is so whether the action is at law or in admiralty, in the state or the federal courts.

The appropriate period of limitations for this action must be determined with an eye to the practicalities of admiralty personal injury litigation. When a seaman is injured, he has three means of recovery against his employer: (1) maintenance and cure, (2) negligence under the Jones Act, and (3) unseaworthiness. Without elaborating on the nature of these three actions, it is sufficient to say that they are so varied in their elements of proof, type of defenses, and extent of recovery that a seaman will rarely forego his right to sue for all three. But if the seaman is to sue for both unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence, he must do so in a single proceeding.

Page 225

That is a consequence of this Court's decision in Baltimore S.S. Co. v. Phillips, 274 U.S. 316, which held that these claims were but alternative "grounds" of recovery for a single cause of action. A judgment in the seaman's libel for unseaworthiness was held to be a complete "bar" to his subsequent action for the same injuries under the Jones Act.

Since the seaman must sue for both unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence in order to make full utilization of his remedies for personal injury, and since that can be accomplished only in a single proceeding, a time limitation on the unseaworthiness claim effects, in substance, a similar limitation on the right of action under the Jones Act. Congress has provided that a seaman shall have three years to bring his action under the Jones Act.6 A state court cannot reduce that time by applying its own statute of limitations to such an action. Engel v. Davenport, 271 U.S. 33; cf. Cox v. Roth, 348 U.S. 207. As an essential corollary of that proposition, it may not qualify the seaman's Jones Act right by affixing a shorter limitation to his concurrent right of action for unseaworthiness.7

Page 226

To be sure, the seaman's [78 S.Ct. 1205] right of action under the Jones Act is not extinguished when a State imposes a two-year limitation on the right to sue for unseaworthiness for the same injury. But ,in view of the practical necessity of combining both claims in a single action, Baltimore S.S. Co. v. Phillips, supra, the unseaworthiness limitation effectively diminishes the time within which the seaman must commence his action under the Jones Act. The result falls short of affording seamen "the full benefit of federal law," Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239, 243, to which they are entitled when state courts undertake to adjudicate claims...

To continue reading