358 U.S. 613 (1959), 56, United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots

Docket Nº:No. 56
Citation:358 U.S. 613, 79 S.Ct. 517, 3 L.Ed.2d 541
Party Name:United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots
Case Date:February 24, 1959
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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358 U.S. 613 (1959)

79 S.Ct. 517, 3 L.Ed.2d 541

United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots

No. 56

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 24, 1959

Association v. Halecki

Argued October 23, 1958

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

While a pilot boat was being overhauled by a contractor at a shipyard in New Jersey, two employees of a specialized subcontractor went aboard to clean the generators with carbon tetrachloride, a task which could be performed only when there was no one else on board the ship, and which required the use of special equipment and special safety precautions. Though such special equipment was used, and the usual precautions were taken, one of these employees died of carbon tetrachloride poisoning. His administratrix brought this action for damages against the owners of the pilot boat in a federal district court, basing jurisdiction on diversity of citizenship. Under instructions that either unseaworthiness of the vessel or negligence would render the defendants liable, and that contributory negligence on the part of the decedent would serve only to mitigate damages, a jury returned a general verdict for the administratrix, and judgment was entered thereon. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the New Jersey Wrongful Death Act incorporates liability for unseaworthiness, as developed by federal law, and adopts the admiralty rule of comparative negligence when death occurs as a result of tortious conduct upon the navigable waters of that State.

Held:

1. The right of recovery depended upon the interpretation of New Jersey law, and this Court accepts the Court of Appeals' determination of the effect which New Jersey law would accord to the decedent's contributory negligence. The Tungus v. Skovgaard, ante, p. 588. P. 615.

2. Even if the Wrongful Death Act of New Jersey be interpreted as importing the federal maritime law of unseaworthiness, the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the circumstances of this case were such as to impose liability under that doctrine. Pp. 615-618.

3. Since the doctrine of unseaworthiness was not applicable, it was error to instruct the jury that the shipowner could be held

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liable even if the jury should find that the shipowner had exercised reasonable care. P. 618.

4. As to the claim based on negligence, the evidence created an issue of fact to be determined by the jury. Pp. 618-619.

5. A new trial will be required, since there is no way of knowing whether the invalid claim of unseaworthiness was the sole basis for the jury's verdict. P. 615.

251 F.2d 708, judgment vacated and cause remanded.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

[79 S.Ct. 518] MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The administratrix of the estate of Walter J. Halecki brought this action against the owners of the pilot boat New Jersey to recover damages for Halecki's death, allegedly caused by inhalation of carbon tetrachloride fumes while working aboard that vessel. The action, based upon the New Jersey Wrongful Death Act, N.J.Stat.Ann. 2A:31-1, was brought in the federal court by reason of diversity of citizenship. Under instructions that either unseaworthiness of the vessel or negligence would render the defendants liable, and that contributory negligence on the part of the decedent would serve only to mitigate damages, a jury returned a verdict for the administratrix, upon which judgment was entered. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the New Jersey Wrongful Death Act incorporates liability for unseaworthiness, as developed by federal law, and adopts the admiralty rule of comparative negligence when death occurs as a

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result of tortious conduct upon the navigable waters of that State. 251 F.2d 708.

For the reasons stated in The Tungus v. Skovgaard, ante, p. 588, we hold that the Court of Appeals was correct in viewing its basic task as one of interpreting the law of New Jersey. For reasons also stated in Tungus, we accept in this case the Court of Appeals' determination of the effect which New Jersey law would accord to the decedent's contributory negligence. But even if the Wrongful Death Act of New Jersey be interpreted as importing the federal maritime law of unseaworthiness, the court was in error in holding that the circumstances of this case were such as to impose liability under that doctrine.

The essential facts are not in dispute. In September of 1951, the vessel was brought to Jersey City, New Jersey, for its annual overhaul at the shipyard of Rodermond Industries, Inc. One of the jobs to be done was the dismantling and overhaul of the ship's generators, requiring, among other things, that they be sprayed with carbon tetrachloride. Since Rodermond Industries was not equipped to do electrical work, this job was subcontracted to K. & S. Electrical Company, Halecki's employer.

The generators were in the ship's engine room, and both Halecki and his foreman, Donald Doidge, were aware of the necessity of taking special precautions in undertaking the job of spraying them with tetrachloride, a toxic compound.1 They arranged to do the work on Saturday,

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a day chosen because, as Doidge testified, "[W]e know it has to be done when there is nobody else on board ship."

Halecki and Doidge came aboard on the appointed day, equipped with gas masks. They found only a watchman, to whom they gave instructions not to permit anyone to enter the engine room. Before starting the job, they rigged an air hose underneath the generators to blow the fumes away from the man spraying. A high-compression blower was placed so that it would exhaust foul air through one of the two open doorways. These pieces of equipment belonged to Rodermond Industries, and had been brought aboard by Doidge and Halecki the previous day. Together with the engine room's regular ventilating system, the air hoses and blower were operated by electrical power supplied from the dock. Halecki did most of the spraying, working for 10- or 15-minute periods with intervening rests of equal length. The ventilating equipment was in operation, [79 S.Ct. 519] and Halecki wore a gas mask during the entire period that he worked. He became sick the next day, and died two weeks later of carbon tetrachloride poisoning.

The eventful development of the doctrine of unseaworthiness in this Court is familiar history. Although of dubious ancestry,2 the doctrine was born with The Osceola,3 and emerged full-blown 40 years later in Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co.4 as an absolute and nondelegable duty which the owner of a vessel owes to the members of the crew who man her. The justification for this rigid standard was clearly stated in the Court's opinion in Mahnich:

He [the seaman] is subject to the rigorous discipline of the sea, and all the conditions of his service

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constrain him to accept, without critical examination and without protest, working conditions and appliances as commanded by his superior officers.

321 U.S. 96, at 103.

With the nature of the duty thus defined, it remained for two other decisions of the Court to amplify its scope. Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki and Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn5 made clear that the shipowner could not escape liability for unseaworthiness by delegating to others work traditionally done by members of the crew. Whether their calling be labeled "stevedore," "carpenter," or something else, those who did the "type of work" traditionally done by seamen, and were thus related to the ship in the same way as seamen "who had been or who were about to go on a voyage," were entitled to a seaworthy ship. See 346 U.S. at 413.

Neither these decisions nor the policy that underlies them can justify extension of liability for unseaworthiness to the decedent in the present case. The work that he did was in no way "the type of work" traditionally done by the ship's crew. It was work that could not even be performed upon a ship ready for sea, but only when the ship was "dead," with its generators dismantled. Moreover, it was the work of a specialist, requiring special skill and special equipment -- portable blowers, air hoses, gas masks, and tanks of carbon tetrachloride, all brought aboard the vessel for this special purpose, and none connected with a ship's seagoing operations.6 Indeed, the work was so specialized that the repair yard engaged to overhaul the vessel was not itself equipped to perform it,

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but had to enlist the services of a subcontractor. A measure of how foreign was the decedent's work to that ordinarily performed by the ship's crew is that it could be performed only at a time when all the members of the crew were off the ship.

It avails nothing to say that the decedent was an "electrician," and that many modern ships carry electricians in their crew. Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn explicitly teaches that such labels in this domain are meaningless. See 346 U.S. at 413. It is scarcely more helpful to indulge in the euphemism that the decedent was "cleaning" part of the ship, and to say that it is a traditional duty of seamen to keep their ship clean. The basic fact is, in the apt words of Judge Lumbard's dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals, that the decedent "was not doing what any crew member had ever done on this ship or anywhere else in the world so far as we [79 S.Ct. 520] are informed." 251 F.2d 708 at 715. To extend liability for unseaworthiness to the decedent here would distort the law of Mahnich, of Hawn, and of Sieracki beyond recognition. We therefore hold that it was error to instruct the jury that the shipowner could be held liable in this case even if they should find that the shipowner had exercised reasonable care.7

As to the claim...

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