762 F.2d 348 (4th Cir. 1985), 81-1870, Dracos v. Hellenic Lines, Ltd.

Docket Nº:81-1870.
Citation:762 F.2d 348
Party Name:Maria DRACOS, as Administratrix of the Estate of Nicholas Dracos, deceased, Appellant, v. HELLENIC LINES, LIMITED, a corporation, Appellee.
Case Date:May 09, 1985
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Page 348

762 F.2d 348 (4th Cir. 1985)

Maria DRACOS, as Administratrix of the Estate of Nicholas

Dracos, deceased, Appellant,


HELLENIC LINES, LIMITED, a corporation, Appellee.

No. 81-1870.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 9, 1985

Argued Dec. 5, 1983.

Page 349

Avram G. Adler, Philadelphia, Pa. (Anne E. Fialkowski, Adler, Barish, Levin & Creskoff, Philadelphia, Pa., C. Arthur Rutter, Jr., John H. Klein, Breit, Rutter & Montagna, Norfolk, Va., on brief), for appellant.

Carter B.S. Furr, W.L. Berkley, III, Norfolk, Va. (Jett, Agelasto, Berkley, Furr & Price, Norfolk, Va., on brief), for appellee.


Following reargument en banc, and prior to our decision, Hellenic Lines filed a bankruptcy proceeding in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, Case No. 83-B11776. As a result of the bankruptcy proceeding, the case before us became subject to the automatic stay provisions of the Bankruptcy Code, which was lifted by an order of that Bankruptcy Court October 1, 1984.


WIDENER, Circuit Judge.

This appeal presents to us the principal issue of what, if any, collateral estoppel effect facts previously found which underlie the choice of law in a maritime tort action should have in resolving a similar choice of law issue in a later action. Also involved is whether there are sufficient American contacts to require a choice of the law of the United States. The district court refused to give collateral estoppel effect to prior cases and concluded that the law of the United States did not apply. On the basis of this choice of law, the district court further concluded that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and granted the defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. We affirm.

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Nicholas Dracos was the chief engineer aboard the M/V HELLENIC STAR. He was last seen alive on May 14, 1977, when the ship was berthed in Norfolk, Virginia. Later that day, members of the crew found Dracos dead in the ship's refrigerator hold.

Maria Dracos, the widow of Nicholas Dracos and the administratrix of his estate, filed suit on account of the death of her husband against Hellenic Lines, Ltd., which was his employer and the ship's owner. The complaint asserted causes of action for damages on account of negligence under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C. Sec. 688, and for unseaworthiness under the general "American Maritime Law," apparently as a pendent claim. See Romero, infra, 358 U.S. p. 380, 79 S.Ct. p. 484.

Throughout the course of this action, the defendant contested the district court's jurisdiction on the ground that the law of the United States did not apply. The defendant raised the issue of the applicability of foreign law in its answer and reiterated its position in its pretrial statement of issues and in various motions. Because it believed that Greek law determined the rights and liabilities of the parties, the defendant also asserted that the plaintiff's causes of action did not arise under the laws of the United States and thus the plaintiff had failed to state a jurisdictional basis for her suit. After the jury returned a plaintiff's verdict, the defendant moved for judgment n.o.v. Upon considering this motion, the district court concluded that neither federal law nor general maritime law of the United States applied in this case. The district court thus found itself to be without jurisdiction and entered judgment for the defendant. 1


Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction; their jurisdiction will not be presumed. Lehigh Mining & Manufacturing Co. v. Kelly, 160 U.S. 327, 337, 16 S.Ct. 307, 311, 40 L.Ed. 444 (1895). Accordingly, plaintiffs must affirmatively plead the jurisdiction of the federal court. FRCP 8(a)(1); McNutt v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189, 56 S.Ct. 780, 785, 80 L.Ed. 1135 (1936). Of course a federal court has jurisdiction to inquire into its own jurisdiction, Romero v. International Terminal Co., 358 U.S. 354, 359, 79 S.Ct. 468, 473, 3 L.Ed.2d 368 (1959), and the district court did just that in the case at hand.

The plaintiff concedes, as she must, that she had the burden of showing such facts that would lead the court to choose American law. Therefore, the plaintiff's burden of proving jurisdiction was principally a burden to show that the court must choose American law, for on its choice of law its jurisdiction depended.

In Lauritzen v. Larsen, 345 U.S. 571, 583-90, 73 S.Ct. 921, 928-32, 97 L.Ed. 1254 (1953), the Supreme Court enumerated seven factors to be considered in choosing the

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proper choice of law to govern a maritime tort: (1) the place of the wrongful act, (2) the law of the flag, (3) the allegiance or domicile of the injured seaman, (4) the allegiance of the defendant shipowner, (5) the place of the execution of the employment contract, (6) the inaccessibility of the foreign forum, and (7) the law of the forum. The Court explained that like factors guide choices of law in light of the interests of the governments and national interest involved. Id. at 582, 73 S.Ct. at 928. They also determine the applicability of both the Jones Act and general maritime law. Romero, supra, 358 U.S. at 382, 79 S.Ct. at 485. The Supreme Court has also said that these seven factors are not exhaustive and that they...

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