358 U.S. 625 (1959), 22, Kermarec v. Compagnie General Transatlantique

Docket Nº:No. 22
Citation:358 U.S. 625, 79 S.Ct. 406, 3 L.Ed.2d 550
Party Name:Kermarec v. Compagnie General Transatlantique
Case Date:February 24, 1959
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 625

358 U.S. 625 (1959)

79 S.Ct. 406, 3 L.Ed.2d 550

Kermarec

v.

Compagnie General Transatlantique

No. 22

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 24, 1959

        Argued November 13, 1958

        CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

        FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

        Syllabus

        While visiting a seaman on board a vessel berthed at a pier in New York City, petitioner was injured by a fall down a stairway. Basing jurisdiction on diversity of citizenship, he brought an action for damages in a Federal District Court against the shipowner. He alleged unseaworthiness of the vessel and negligence of its crew. The jury returned a verdict for petitioner, but the District Court set it aside and dismissed the complaint.

        Held: judgment vacated and case remanded to the District Court with instructions to reinstate the jury verdict and enter judgment accordingly. Pp. 626-632.

        1. Since petitioner was injured aboard a ship upon navigable waters, the case is within full range of admiralty jurisdiction and is governed by the standards of maritime law, and the District Court erred in ruling that it was governed by New York law. Pp. 628-629.

        2. The District Judge erred in instructing the jury that contributory negligence on petitioner's part would operate as a complete bar to recovery; he should have told the jury that petitioner's contributory negligence was to be considered only in mitigation of damages; but this error did not prejudice petitioner, because the jury found in his favor. P. 629.

        3. The District Judge was correct in eliminating from the case the claim based on unseaworthiness, since petitioner was not a member of the ship's company nor of that broadened class of workmen to whom the admiralty law has latterly extended the absolute right to a seaworthy ship. P. 629.

        4. Under maritime law, the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances of each case. Pp. 629-632.

        245 F.2d 175, judgment vacated and case remanded to the District

        Court.

Page 626

        STEWART, J., lead opinion

        MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

        On November 24, 1948, the respondent's vessel, the S. S. Oregon, was berthed at a pier in the North River, New York City. About noon on that day, Joseph Kermarec came aboard to visit Henry Yves, a member of the ship's crew. The purpose of the visit was entirely personal, to pay a social call upon Yves and to give him a package to be delivered to a mutual friend in France. In accordance with customary practice permitting crew members to entertain guests aboard the vessel, Yves had obtained a pass from the executive officer authorizing Kermarec to come aboard.1 As he started to leave the ship several hours later, Kermarec fell and was injured while descending a stairway.

       [79 S.Ct. 408] On the theory that his fall had been caused by the defective manner in which a canvas runner had been

Page 627

tacked to the stairway, Kermarec brought an action for personal injuries in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging unseaworthiness of the vessel and negligence on the part of its crew. Federal jurisdiction was invoked by reason of the diverse citizenship of the parties, and a jury trial was demanded.

        The district judge was of the view that the substantive law of New York was applicable. Accordingly, he eliminated the unseaworthiness claim from the case and instructed the jury that Kermarec was "a gratuitous licensee" who could recover only if the defendant had failed to warn him of a dangerous condition within its actual knowledge, and only if Kermarec himself had been entirely free of contributory negligence.2

        The jury returned a verdict in Kermarec's favor. Subsequently the trial court granted a motion to set the verdict aside and dismiss the complaint, ruling that there

Page 628

had been a complete failure of proof that the shipowner had actually known that the stairway was in a dangerous or defective condition. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed. The opinion of that court does not make clear whether affirmance was based upon agreement with the trial judge that New York law was applicable, or upon a determination that the controlling legal principles would, in any event, be no different under maritime law. 245 F.2d 175. Certiorari was granted to examine both of these issues. 355 U.S. 902.

       The District Court was in error in ruling that the governing law in this case was that of the State of New York. Kermarec was injured aboard a ship upon navigable waters. It was there that the conduct of which he complained occurred. The legal rights and liabilities arising from that conduct were therefore within the full reach of the admiralty jurisdiction, and measurable by the standards of maritime law. See The Plymouth, 3 Wall. 20; Philadelphia, W. & B. R. Co. v. Philadelphia and Havre de Grace Steam Tugboat Co., 23 How. 209, 215; The Commerce, 1 Black 574, 579; The Rock Island Bridge, 6 Wall. 213, 215; The Belfast, 7 Wall. 624, 640; Leathers v. Blessing, 105 U.S. 626, 630; The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649, 651. If this action had been brought in a state court, reference to admiralty law would have been necessary to determine the rights and liabilities of the parties. Carlisle Packing Co. v. Sandanger, 259 U.S. 255, 259. Where the plaintiff exercises the right conferred [79 S.Ct. 409] by diversity of citizenship to choose a federal forum, the result is no different, even though he exercises the further right to a jury trial. Whatever doubt may once have existed on that score was effectively laid to rest by Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 410-411. It thus becomes necessary to consider whether prejudice resulted from the court's application of the substantive law of New York.

Page 629

        In instructing the jury that contributory negligence on Kermarec's part would operate as a complete bar to recovery, the district judge was clearly in error. The jury should have been told instead that Kermarec's contributory negligence was to be considered only in mitigation of damages. The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1; Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-409. It is equally clear, however, that this error did not prejudice Kermarec. By returning a verdict in his favor, the jury necessarily found that Kermarec had not, in fact, been guilty of contributory negligence "even in the...

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