395 U.S. 352 (1969), 436, Rodrigue v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co.

Docket Nº:No. 436
Citation:395 U.S. 352, 89 S.Ct. 1835, 23 L.Ed.2d 360
Party Name:Rodrigue v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co.
Case Date:June 09, 1969
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 352

395 U.S. 352 (1969)

89 S.Ct. 1835, 23 L.Ed.2d 360



Aetna Casualty & Surety Co.

No. 436

United States Supreme Court

June 9, 1969

Argued February 25, 1969




Two men were killed while working on artificial island drilling rigs located on the Continental Shelf more than a marine league from the Louisiana coast. The men's families brought suits for wrongful death in the District Courts (1) under the Death on the High Seas Act ("Seas Act"), which provides an admiralty action for recovery of pecuniary loss for deaths due to wrongful actions or omissions "occurring on the high seas" more than a marine league off the coast, and (2) under Louisiana law (which would have allowed recovery for additional elements of damage) as assertedly made applicable by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act ("Lands Act"). In each case, the District Court held that the Seas Act provided the exclusive remedy, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Petitioners' remedy is under the Lands Act and Louisiana law. Under the Lands Act, federal law, supplemented by the law of the adjacent State not inconsistent with federal law, is to be applied to artificial islands, which Congress clearly intended were to be treated as islands or federal enclaves within a landlocked State and not as vessels subject to admiralty jurisdiction. Pp. 355-366.

391 F.2d 671 and 395 F.2d 216, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves two men, Dore and Rodrigue, who met their deaths on artificial island drilling rigs located on the outer Continental Shelf off the Louisiana coast.

Page 353

Each man's family brought suit [89 S.Ct. 1836] for wrongful death in the federal courts both under the Death on the High Seas Act, 41 Stat. 537, 46 U.S.C. § 761 et seq. (hereinafter "Seas Act"), and under Louisiana law assertedly made applicable by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 67 Stat. 462, 43 U.S.C. § 1331 et seq. (hereinafter "Lands Act"). Each family's suit was separately heard and decided in the District Courts and in the Court of Appeals below. In both cases, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, affirming the District Courts, held that the Seas Act was the exclusive remedy for these deaths. Petitioners sought certiorari, claiming that they are entitled to an additional remedy under the state law adopted by the Lands Act.

In the Dore case, the decedent was working on a crane mounted on the artificial island and being used to unload a barge. As the crane lifted a load from the barge to place it on the artificial island, the crane collapsed and toppled over onto the barge, killing the worker. His widow and her three children brought a single action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, alleging their own and the decedent's residency in Louisiana and the negligence of the firms which manufactured, installed, and serviced the crane. The suit was brought under the

General Maritime Laws, the Death on the High Seas Act, . . . Article 2315 of the [Louisiana Code] and under the other laws of the United States and the State of Louisiana.

It claimed $670,000 in damages to the family plaintiffs for loss of their husband and father, including pecuniary and psychic losses. On motion for summary judgment as to all claims but that under the Seas Act, the District Judge determined that the latter was plaintiffs' only remedy, removed the case to the admiralty side of the court, and thus limited the plaintiffs' recovery to pecuniary loss. The state statute would have allowed recovery

Page 354

for additional elements of damage. The District Judge certified the question pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b), and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 391 F.2d 671.

In the Rodrigue case, the decedent was performing a test on a drill pipe. He was high on the derrick rising above the artificial island, and fell from it to his death on the floor of the structure. His widow and two children brought three actions in the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. One was an admiralty action under the Seas Act; the other two were civil actions respectively against the owner and insurer of the drill rig, and the owner of the stationary platform. The civil actions were brought under the Lands Act and Article 2315 of the Louisiana Revised Civil Code. The trial court consolidated the two civil actions and dismissed the insurer, who had been made a party to one of the civil actions pursuant to the Louisiana direct action statute, La.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 22:655. No reason was assigned for the dismissal, but the ground urged in the motion was that the accident did not occur within the State of Louisiana, so that Louisiana law did not apply. Consistently with this, the District Judge dismissed the consolidated civil action before trial on the ground that the Seas Act provided a remedy and that, under such circumstances, the Lands Act would not make the inconsistent state remedy applicable.1 The admiralty

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action [89 S.Ct. 1837] proceeded to trial and judgment of $75,000, 266 F.Supp. 1, which is not now before us. On appeal of the dismissal of the civil actions, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court per curiam., citing its decision in the Dore case almost two months before. 395 F.2d 216.

Certiorari was granted in both cases, 393 U.S. 932 (1968), and they were argued together here. In light of the principles of traditional admiralty law, the Seas Act, and the Lands Act, we hold that petitioners' remedy is under the Lands Act and Louisiana law. The Lands Act makes it clear that federal law, supplemented by state law of the adjacent State, is to be applied to these artificial islands as though they were federal enclaves in an upland State. This approach was deliberately taken in lieu of treating the structures as vessels, to which admiralty law, supplemented by the law of the jurisdiction of the vessel's owner, would apply. The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398 (1907). This was done in part because men working on these islands are closely tied to the adjacent State, to which they often commute and on which their families live, unlike transitory seamen to whom a more generalized admiralty law is appropriate. Since the Seas Act does not apply of its own force under admiralty principles, and since the Lands Act deliberately eschewed the application of admiralty principles to these novel structures, Louisiana law is not ousted by the Seas Act, and, under the Lands Act, it is made applicable.


The purpose of the Lands Act was to define a body of law applicable to the seabed, the subsoil, and the fixed structures such as those in question here on the outer Continental Shelf. That this law was to be federal law of the United States, applying state law only as federal law and then only when not inconsistent

Page 356

with applicable federal law, is made clear by the language of the Act. Section 3 makes it the "policy of the United States" that the affected areas "appertain to the United States and are subject to its jurisdiction, control, and power of disposition."2 Section 43 makes the "Constitution

Page 357

and laws and civil and political [89 S.Ct. 1838] jurisdiction of the United States" apply "to the same extent as if the outer Continental Shelf were an area of exclusive Federal jurisdiction located within a State." Since federal law, because of its limited function in a federal system, might be inadequate to cope with the full range of potential legal problems, the Act supplemented gaps in the federal law with state law through the "adoption of State law as the law of the United States." Under § 4, the adjacent State's laws were made "the law of the United States for [the relevant subsoil and seabed] and artificial islands and fixed structures erected thereon," but only to "the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent with . . . other Federal laws."

It is evident from this that federal law is "exclusive" in its regulation of this area, and that state law is adopted only as surrogate federal law. The Senate Report on the bill referred to the "precise unequivocal language" of "the provision for the adoption of State laws as Federal law," and referred to the applicable body of law as consisting of the Constitution and laws of the United States, the regulations of the Secretary of the Interior, and finally the laws of the adjacent States "adopted as Federal law and made applicable to supplement existing Federal law and regulations." S.Rep. No. 411 of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 83d Cong., 1st Sess., 11 (1953).

It was the Senate Committee which first introduced the present provision adopting state law, and in its report explaining the introduction it asserted:

Paragraph (2) adopts State law as Federal law, to be used when Federal

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statutes or regulations of the Secretary of the Interior are inapplicable.

Id. at 23. This language makes it clear that state law could be used to fill federal voids. And in the conference report, the House managers of the bill noted that laws of adjacent States which are not inconsistent with federal law "are adopted as the laws of the United States for those particular areas." H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 1031, 83d Cong., 1st Sess., 12 (1953).

The principles that federal law should prevail, and that state law should be applied only as federal law and then only when no inconsistent federal law applied, were adopted by a Congress in which full debate had underscored the issue. Senator Cordon, in presenting the Lands Act to the Senate, noted that the problem addressed by the committee had been raised by

the fact that the full development of the estimated values in the shelf area will require the...

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