Baltimore Co v. Phillips

Decision Date16 May 1927
Docket NumberNo. 271,271
PartiesBALTIMORE S. S. CO. et al. v. PHILLIPS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The Attorney General and Mr. arthur M. Boal, of Washington, D. C., for petitioners.

Mr. Edgar J. Treacy, of New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent, an infant 18 years of age, while employed on board a vessel operated by petitioners, was injured by the fall of a strongback used to support a portion of the hatch, and as a result suffered the amputation of a leg. A libel was filed in admiralty to recover damages in the sum of $15,000 against the petitioners and the United States in the federal District Court for the district of Maryland. The libel alleged that the injury was caused by negligence in failing to provide a safe place to work, and to use reasonable care to avoid striking respondent, and by the unseaworthiness and insufficiency of the gear and tackle employed on the vessel. By an amendment, further specifications of negligence were added to the effect that the United States had failed to provide a proper and sufficient gear or socket to support the strongback, that the officers of the vessel were incompetent, and that there was owing to the injured person a special duty because of his youth and inexperience. Libelant prayed that, if negligence should not be established, he have a decree for wages, maintenance and cure. After a trial, the District Court held that upon the evidence the accident was not due to the negligence alleged but to the grossly negligent way in which dunnage was taken out of the hold, and that under the decisions no recovery could be had for damages upon that ground. By the decree libelant was denied full indemnity by way of damages and awarded the sum of $500 as the cost of maintenance and cure, and this amount was paid and the decree satisfied. Phillips v. United States et al. (D. C.) 286 F. 631.

Subsequently this action was brought in the Supreme Court of the state of New York against the petitioners-the United States not being joined-and removed to the federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The complaint alleges negligence on the part of the petitioners and their officers and employees in the control and operation of the vessel and appliances. The allegations of fact as to the way in which the accident happened are substantially the same in both cases. Petitioners answered in the present case, setting up, among other things the decree in the admiralty case as res judicata, and by stipulation of the parties this was argued before trial. The District Court at first sustained the plea, but, upon reargument, set aside its order to that effect and held the plea bad. A trial resulted in a verdict and judgment for respondent. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, holding in respect of the plea of res judicata that the second action was based upon a different cause of action. 9 F.(2d) 902. And this presents the sole question for consideration here.

The effect of a judgment or decree as res judicata depends upon whether the second action or suit is upon the same or a different cause of action. If upon the same cause of action, the judgment or decree upon the merits in the first case is an absolute bar to the subsequent action or suit between the same parties or those in privity with them, not only in respect of every matter which was actually offered and received to sustain the demand, but also as to every ground of recovery which might have been presented. But if the second case be upon a different cause of action, the prior judgment or decree operates as an estoppel only as to matters actually in issue or points controverted, upon the determination of which the judgment or decree was rendered. Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U. S. 351, 352, 353, 24 L. Ed. 195; United States v. Moser, 266 U. S. 236, 241, 45 S. Ct. 66, 69 L. Ed. 262. There is some confusion in the decisions as to whether the present case should fall within the first or the second branch of the rule, but we are of opinion that the great weight of authority, both in respect of the number of decisions and upon reason, sustains the view that the facts here gave rise to a single cause of action for damages and that the first branch of the rule applies. In United States v. California & Ore. Land Co., 192 U. S. 355, 24 S. Ct. 266, 48 L. Ed. 476, this court announced the general rule to be that a judgment or decree upon the merits concludes the parties as to all media concludendi or grounds for asserting the right, known when the suit was brought. In that case a bill had been brought to have certain patents for land issued by the United States declared void on the ground that the lands were within an Indian reservation and, therefore, reserved from the operation of the grant. The land company pleaded in bar that the United States had filed an earlier bill seeking the same relief and that a final decree had been entered dismissing that bill. The only thing which the court could find to distinguish the two suits was that in the latter the United States had put forward a new ground for its prayer, but in both cases it sought to establish its own title to the fee. This court sustained the plea in bar, saying:

'But the whole tendency of our decisions is to require a plaintiff to try his whole cause of action and his whole case at one time. He cannot even split up his claim. Fetter v. Beale, 1 Salk. 11; Trask v. Hartford & New Haven Railroad, 2 Allen (Mass.) 331; Freeman, Judgments (4th Ed.) §§ 238, 241. And, a fortiori, he cannot divide the grounds of recovery. Unless the statute of 1889 (25 Stat. 850) put the former suit upon a peculiar footing, the United States was bound then to bring forward all the grounds it had for declaring the patents void, and when the bill was dismissed was barred as to all by the decree.'

The same general doctrine is stated in Stark v. Starr, 94 U. S. 477, 485 (24 L. Ed. 276), that:

'A party seeking to enforce a claim, legal or equitable, must present to the court, either by the pleadings or proofs, or both, all the grounds upon which he expects a judgment in his favor. He is not at liberty to split up his demand and prosecute it by piecemeal, or present only a portion of the grounds upon which special relief is sought, and leave the rest to be presented in a second suit, if the first fail. There would be no end to litigation if such a practice were permissible.'

And see also, Werlein v. New Orleans, 177 U. S. 390, 398-400, 20 S. Ct. 682, 44 L. Ed. 817.

Here the court below concluded that the cause of action set up in the second case was not the same as that alleged in the first, because the grounds of negligence pleaded were distinct and different in character; the ground alleged in the first case being the use of defective appliances, and in the second, the negligent operation of the appliances by the officers and coemployees. Upon principle, it is perfectly plain that the respondent suffered but one actionable wrong, and was entitled to but one recovery, whether his injury was due to one or the other of several distinct acts of alleged negligence, or to a combination of some or all of them. In either view, there would be but a single wrongful invasion of a single primary right of the plaintiff, namely, the right of bodily safety, whether the acts constituting such invasion were one or many, simple or complex.

A cause of action does not consist of facts, but of the unlawful violation of a right which the facts show. The number and variety of the facts alleged do not establish more than one cause of action so long as their result, whether they be considered severally or in combination, is the violation of but one right by a single legal wrong. The mere multiplication of grounds of negligence alleged as causing the same injury does not result in multiplying the causes of action. 'The facts are merely the means, and not the end. They do not constitute the cause of action, but they show its existence by making the wrong appear. 'The thing, therefore, which in contemplation of law as its cause, becomes a ground for action, is not the group of facts alleged in the declaration, bill, or indictment, but the result of these in a legal wrong, the existence of which, if true, they conclusively evince." Chobanian v. Washburn Wire Company, 33 R. I. 289, 302, 80 A. 394, 400 (Ann. Cas. 1913D, 730).


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