Alvez v. American Export Lines, Inc.

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation46 N.Y.2d 634,415 N.Y.S.2d 979,389 N.E.2d 461
Parties, 389 N.E.2d 461, 1979 A.M.C. 906 Gilberto ALVEZ, Respondent, v. AMERICAN EXPORT LINES, INC., Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff-Appellant. Joseph Vinal Ship Maintenance, Inc., Third-Party Defendant-Respondent.
Decision Date03 April 1979

Stephen K. Carr and Gary D. Stumpp, New York City, for defendant and third-party plaintiff-appellant.

Paul C. Matthews, New York City, for respondent.

William M. Kimball and Peter M. Pryor, New York City, for third-party defendant-respondent.


JASEN, Judge.

To be resolved on this appeal is the question whether the wife of an injured harbor worker may seek recovery for loss of consortium occasioned by her husband's injury.

Respondent, while working as a ship's lasher aboard appellant's 1 vessel, the "Export Builder", was injured within the territorial waters of this State when struck by the handle of an allegedly defective tension jack, resulting in the enucleation of his right eye. After commencing this action, respondent moved to amend his complaint to add his spouse as a party plaintiff in an action for loss of consortium. Special Term denied respondent's motion, reasoning that the general maritime law does not afford a remedy for loss of consortium. The Appellate Division unanimously reversed, granted respondent's motion and certified the following question: "Was the order of this Court, which reversed the order of Supreme Court an abuse of discretion as a matter of law?" The order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed and the certified question answered in the negative.

In denying respondent's motion, Special Term relied entirely upon Igneri v. Cie. de Transports Oceaniques, 2 Cir., 323 F.2d 257, cert. den. 376 U.S. 949, 84 S.Ct. 965, 11 L.Ed.2d 969, in which the Second Circuit held that the spouse of a longshoreman injured while working aboard a vessel in Brooklyn harbor had no cause of action for loss of consortium whether caused by negligence of the owner or unseaworthiness of the vessel. (323 F.2d, at pp. 265-268, Supra.) In reaching this conclusion, the court observed that maritime law will often draw upon the law of the land where clear precedent does not exist in the former. With respect to recovery for loss of consortium, the court posited that if an admiralty court found that "the common law recognized a wife's claim for loss of consortium, uniformly or nearly so," it would query why it should not similarly recognize such a claim. (Id., at p. 260.)

Upon examining the state of the common law, the court found that although the great majority of States recognized the existence of a cause of action by a husband for loss of consortium, only 12 jurisdictions permitted a similar recovery by a wife. In light of the absence of a clear rule either permitting or prohibiting such recovery, the court turned to a consideration of which rule best comported with then existing principles of maritime law. Relying primarily upon the unavailability of such relief to the wife of an injured seaman under the Jones Act (U.S.Code, tit. 46, § 688), the court concluded that it would be anomalous to permit recovery for loss of consortium by the wife of a longshoreman, whether on a theory of negligence or unseaworthiness. (Id., at pp. 265-268.)

In the years since the Second Circuit's decision in Igneri, maritime law has not remained static but, like the common law, has undergone significant change. In 1963, the year of the Igneri decision, the Supreme Court's decision in The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 199, 213, 7 S.Ct. 140, 30 L.Ed. 358, still ruled the day, holding that maritime law did not afford a cause of action for wrongful death. However, in 1970, the Supreme Court overruled The Harrisburg and recognized the existence of an action for wrongful death under the general maritime law. (Moragne v. States Mar. Lines, 398 U.S. 375, 409, 90 S.Ct. 1772, 26 L.Ed.2d 339.) In so holding, the court left for future consideration the precise scope of the remedy recognized. (Id., at pp. 405-408, 90 S.Ct. 1772.)

Further delineation of the breadth of the wrongful death cause of action afforded by general maritime law soon followed in Sea-Land Servs. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573, 94 S.Ct. 806, 39 L.Ed.2d 9, wherein the court held that a decedent's dependents may recover for, among other elements of damage loss of society, which the court defined as including a decedent's "love, affection, care, attention, companionship, comfort, and protection." Id., at p. 585, 94 S.Ct. at p. 815 (footnote omitted).) The court was careful, however, to exclude from the concept of society recovery for mental anguish or grief. 2 (Id., at n. 17, 94 S.Ct. 806.)

In assessing the impact of these cases upon resolution of the issue before us, we proceed cautiously cognizant that it is the general maritime law that governs the rights and liabilities of the parties. (Romero v. International Term. Operating Co., 358 U.S. 354, 373, 79 S.Ct. 468, 3 L.Ed.2d 368; Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239, 245, 63 S.Ct. 246, 87 L.Ed. 239; Celeste v. Prudential-Grace Lines, 35 N.Y.2d 60, 62-63, 358 N.Y.S.2d 729, 731-732, 315 N.E.2d 782, 783-784; Matter of Rederi (Dow Chem. Co.), 25 N.Y.2d 576, 581, 307 N.Y.S.2d 660, 662, 255 N.E.2d 774, 776 cert. den. 398 U.S. 939, 90 S.Ct. 1844, 26 L.Ed.2d 272; ALI Study of the Division of Jurisdiction Between State and Federal Courts, § 1316(b), at p. 239 (Off Draft, 1969).) Were this a case in which State law were applicable notwithstanding the existence of a Federal question (see, e. g., People v. Payton, 45 N.Y.2d 300, 312, 408 N.Y.S.2d 395, 401, 380 N.E.2d 224, 230), we would be free to render a decision on such Federal question differing from pertinent Federal court decisions save a controlling determination of the Supreme Court. (People ex rel. Ray v. Martin, 294 N.Y. 61, 73, 60 N.E.2d 541, 547, affd. 326 U.S. 496, 66 S.Ct. 34, 90 L.Ed. 401.) To be distinguished, however, are those unique areas, such as admiralty and maritime matters, which either by Constitution or Congressional legislation have been deemed to require a uniform body of national law. (See, generally, Hart, Relations Between State and Federal Law, 54 Col.L.Rev. 489.) In such areas not only does there exist a Federal question, but more importantly, an answer obtainable solely by recourse to Federal law. (Cf. Teamsters Local v. Lucas Flour Co., 369 U.S. 95, 102, 82 S.Ct. 571, 7 L.Ed.2d 593.) Thus, notwithstanding the absence of a controlling Supreme Court decision, were there a uniform Federal rule, albeit one established by lower Federal courts, we would be bound in a case such as the one at hand to apply it.

It is, therefore, with great deference that we proceed to an analysis of the question before us. Critical to its resolution is the effect which Moragne and Gaudet have had upon general maritime law and in particular upon the continued validity of Igneri. Judicial interpretation of these developments has not been uniform, leaving uncertain whether there presently exists a cause of action for loss of consortium in a personal injury action under the general maritime law. (Compare Giglio v. Farrell Lines, D.C., 424 F.Supp. 927, mot. for lv. to app. den. No. 77-8014 (2d Cir., Feb. 17, 1977), 3 and Lemon v. Bank Lines, D.C., 411 F.Supp. 677, dsmd. upon reconsideration in light of Christofferson v. Halliburton Co., 5 Cir., 534 F.2d 1147, affd. without opn. 5 Cir., 562 F.2d 1259, and Pesce v. Summa Corp., 54 Cal.App.3d 86, 126 Cal.Rptr. 451 (upholding cause of action for loss of consortium), with Christofferson v. Halliburton Co., 534 F.2d 1147, Supra, and Wetters v. Moore-McCormack Lines, 1977 AMC 1529, and Davidson v. Reederei, 295 So.2d 700 (Fla.App.) (rejecting cause of action for loss of consortium).)

In our opinion, examination of the Ratio decedendi of the Igneri decision reveals an erosion of its theoretical underpinnings so severe as to precipitate its collapse under its own weight. To begin with, unlike the state of the law of the land as to recovery for loss of consortium then prevailing, the great majority of States, including New York, now recognize such a cause of action by either husband or wife in a personal injury action. 4 In dispelling any argument that a wife does not have as great a right to her husband's consortium as he to hers, we stated: " 'The gist of the matter is that in today's society the wife's position is analogous to that of a partner, neither kitchen slattern nor upstairs maid. Her duties and responsibilities in respect of the family unit complement those of the husband, extending only to another sphere. In the good times she lights the hearth with her own inimitable glow. But when tragedy strikes it is a part of her unique glory that, forsaking the shelter, the comfort, the warmth of the home, she puts her arm and shoulder to the plow. We are now at the heart of the issue. In such circumstances, when her husband's love is denied her, his strength sapped, and his protection destroyed, in short, when she has been forced by the defendant to exchange a heart for a husk, we are urged to rule that she has suffered no loss compensable at the law. But let some scoundrel dent a dishpan in the family kitchen and the law, in all its majesty, will convene the court, will march with measured tread to the halls of justice, and will there suffer a jury of her peers to assess the damages. Why are we asked, then, in the case before us, to look the other way? Is this what is meant when it is said that justice is blind?" (Millington v. Southeastern Elevator Co., 22 N.Y.2d 498, 503-504, 293 N.Y.S.2d 305, 309, 239 N.E.2d 897, 900, quoting Montgomery v. Stephan, 359 Mich. 33, 48-49, 101 N.W.2d 227.)

In addition to the absence of a rule at common law recognizing "a wife's claim for loss of consortium, uniformly or nearly so," (Igneri v. Cie. de Transports Oceaniques, 323 F.2d, at p. 260, Supra), the Second Circuit hinged its...

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