414 U.S. 573 (1974), 72-1019, Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet

Docket Nº:No. 72-1019
Citation:414 U.S. 573, 94 S.Ct. 806, 39 L.Ed.2d 9
Party Name:Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet
Case Date:January 21, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 573

414 U.S. 573 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 806, 39 L.Ed.2d 9

Sea-Land Services, Inc.



No. 72-1019

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 21, 1974

Argued November 7, 1973




Respondent's husband, a longshoreman, was severely injured aboard petitioner's vessel in Louisiana navigable waters. Shortly after termination of an action based on unseaworthiness, in which he recovered damages for past and future wages, pain and suffering, and medical and incidental expenses, the husband died, and respondent brought this maritime wrongful death action for damages suffered by her. The District Court dismissed respondent's suit on grounds of res judicata and failure to state a claim. The Court of Appeals reversed, on the basis of Morange v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375.

Held: Respondent's maritime wrongful death action is not barred by decedent's recovery in his lifetime for damages for his personal injuries. Pp. 575-S95.

(a) Moragne v. States Marine Lines, supra, created a true wrongful death remedy that is founded upon the death itself, and is independent of any action the decedent may have had for his own personal injuries, and because respondent's suit thus involves a different cause of action from decedent's, it is not precluded by res judicata. Pp. 575-583.

(b) The maritime wrongful death remedy permits a decedent's dependents to recover damages for loss of support, services, and society, as well as damages for funeral expenses. Pp. 583-591.

(c) All but the first of the foregoing elements of damages could not accrue until the decedent's, death and therefore could not subject petitioner to double liability. Though there is an apparent overlap between a decedent's recovery for loss of future wages and the dependents' subsequent claim for support, the doctrine of collateral estoppel would bar dependents from recovering for loss of support to the extent that the decedent had recovered for future wages. Pp. 591-595.

463 F.2d 1331, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. POWELL, J.,

Page 574

filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 595.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970), overruling The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 199 (1886), held that an action for wrongful death based on unseaworthiness is maintainable under federal maritime law, but left the shaping of the new nonstatutory action to future cases. The question in this case is whether the widow of a longshoreman may maintain such an action for the wrongful death of her husband -- alleged to have resulted from injuries suffered by him while aboard a vessel in navigable waters -- after the decedent recovered damages in his lifetime for his injuries.

Respondent's husband suffered severe injuries while working as a longshoreman aboard petitioner's vessel, the S.S. Claiborne, in Louisiana navigable waters. He recovered $140,000 for his permanent disability, physical agony, and loss of earnings in an action based on unseaworthiness,1 but died shortly after the action was terminated. Respondent brought this wrongful death action in the District Court for the Eastern [94 S.Ct. 810] District of Louisiana for damages suffered by her. Based on her husband's recovery, the District Court dismissed the widow's suit on grounds of res judicata and failure to state a claim. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Moragne gave

Mrs. Gaudet . . . a compensable

Page 575

cause of action for Mr. Gaudet's death wholly apart from, and not extinguished by, the latter's recovery for his personal injuries. . . .

463 F.2d 1331, 1332 (1972). We granted certiorari, 411 U.S. 963 (1973), and now affirm.


The harshness of the Harrisburg rule that, in the absence of a statute, there is no maritime action for wrongful death, was only partially relieved by enactment of federal and state wrongful death statutes.2 The Death

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on the High Seas Act, 41 Stat. 537, 46 U.S.C. §§ 761-768, created a wrongful death action for death outside the three-mile limit.3 The Jones Act, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U.S.C. § 688, incorporating the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 35 Stat. 65, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, established such an action based on negligence for the wrongful death of a seaman regardless of the situs of the wrong; but otherwise, wrongful death actions for deaths occurring on navigable waters within the three-mile territorial waters of a State depended upon whether the State had enacted a wrongful death statute and, if so, whether the statute permitted recovery.4

Moragne reflected dissatisfaction with this state of the law that illogically and unjustifiably deprived the dependents of many maritime death victims of an adequate remedy for their losses. Three clearly unjust consequences were of particular concern:

The first of these is simply the discrepancy produced whenever the rule of The Harrisburg holds sway: within territorial waters, identical conduct violating federal law (here the furnishing of an unseaworthy vessel) produces liability if the victim is merely [94 S.Ct. 811] injured, but frequently not if he is killed. . . .

The second incongruity is that identical breaches of the duty to provide a seaworthy ship, resulting in death, produce liability outside the three-mile

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limit -- since a claim under the Death on the High Seas Act may be founded on unseaworthiness, see Kernan v. American Dredging Co., 355 U.S. 426, 430 n. 4 (1958) -- but not within the territorial waters of a State whose local statute excludes unseaworthiness claims. . . .

The third, and assertedly the "strangest," anomaly is that a true seaman -- that is, a member of a ship's company, covered by the Jones Act -- is provided no remedy for death caused by unseaworthiness within territorial waters, while a longshoreman, to whom the duty of seaworthiness was extended only because he performs work traditionally done by seamen, does have such a remedy when allowed by a state statute (footnote omitted).

398 U.S. at 395-396.

In overruling The Harrisburg, Moragne ended these anomalies by the creation of a uniform federal cause of action for maritime death, designed to extend to the dependents of maritime wrongful death victims admiralty's "special solicitude for the welfare of those men who under[take] to venture upon hazardous and unpredictable sea voyages." Id. at 387. Our approach to the resolution of the issue before us must necessarily be consistent with the extension of this "special solicitude" to the dependents of the seafaring decedent.

Petitioner, Sea-Land Services, Inc. (Sea-Land), would attach no significance to this extension in shaping the maritime wrongful death remedy. It argues that the wrongful death remedy should recognize no loss independent of the decedent's claim for his personal injuries, and therefore that respondent had a wrongful death remedy only "in the event Gaudet failed to prosecute [his own claim] during his lifetime." Brief for Petitioner 6. But Moragne had already implicitly rejected that argument,

Page 578

for we there recognized that a single tortious act might result in two distinct, though related, harms, giving rise to two separate causes of action:

in the case of mere injury, the person physically harmed is made whole for his harm, while, in the case of death, those closest to him -- usually spouse and children -- seek to recover for their total loss of one on whom they depended.

Id. at 382. Thus, Moragne created a true wrongful death remedy -- founded upon the death itself and independent of any action the decedent may have had for his own personal injuries.5 Because the respondent's suit involves a different cause of action, it is not precluded by res judicata. For res judicata operates only to bar

repetitious suits involving the same cause of action. [The bar] rests upon considerations of economy of judicial [94 S.Ct. 812] time and public policy favoring the establishment of certainty in legal relations. The rule provides that, when a court of competent jurisdiction

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has entered a final judgment on the merits of a cause of action, the parties to the suit and their privies are thereafter bound

not only as to every matter which was offered and received to sustain or defeat the claim or demand, but as to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose.

Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U.S. 351, 352. The judgment puts an end to the cause of action, which cannot again be brought into litigation between the parties upon any ground whatever, absent fraud or some other factor invalidating the judgment. See Von Moschzisker, "Res Judicata," 38 Yale L.J. 299; Restatement of the Law of Judgments, §§ 47, 48.

Commissioner v. Sunnen, 333 U.S. 591, 597 (1948).

To be sure, a majority of courts interpreting state and federal wrongful death statutes have held that an action for wrongful death is barred by the decedent's recovery for injuries during his lifetime. But the bar does not appear to rest in those cases so much upon principles of res judicata or public policy as upon statutory limitations on the wrongful death action. As one authority has noted,

[t]he fact that all civil remedies for wrongful death derive from statute has important consequences. Since the right was unknown to common law, the legislatures which created the right were free to impose restrictions upon it.

2 Harper & James § 24.1, p. 1285. Thus, England's Lord Campbell's Act,6 the first wrongful death statute, permits recovery

whensoever the Death of a

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Person shall be caused by [the] wrongful Act . . . [of another] and the Act . . . is such as would (if...

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