Canadian Aviator v. United States

Decision Date26 February 1945
Docket NumberNo. 279,279
Citation324 U.S. 215,89 L.Ed. 901,1945 A.M.C. 265,65 S.Ct. 639
PartiesCANADIAN AVIATOR, Limited, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Eugene Underwood, of New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Francis M. Shea, Asst. Atty. Gen., for respondent.

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This writ brings here for review a libel filed by the petitioner, a Canadian corporation and owner of the steamship Cavelier, against the respondent, the United States Government, to recover, under the provisions of the Public Vessels Act, 1925, 43 Stat. 1112,1 damages alleged to have been suffered by the Cavelier due to the negligent operation of a public vessel of the United States. The United States District Court dismissed the libel on the grounds that it failed to state a cause of action within the Public Vessels Act, 1925, for which the United States had consented to be sued.2 The Circuit Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting, affirmed the District Court.3

The jurisdiction of the United States District Court is based on Section 24 of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C.A. § 41. The petition for certiorari was granted, 323 U.S. 688, 65 S.Ct. 63, because the Circuit Court of Appeals decided a question of general importance relating to the construction of a federal statute. Jurisdiction of this Court rests on Section 240(a) of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C.A. § 347(a).

On August 4, 1942, the petitioner, the owners of the steamship Cavelier, filed a libel in personam in admiralty in a federal district court against the United States to recover for damages to its ship, the Cavelier, alleged to have been caused by the negligent operation of the United States Naval patrol boat, YP 249, a public vessel of the United States. The libel averred that on July 7, 1942, the Cavelier, while en route from Canada to Jamaica, was ordered by United States Naval authorities to enter Dela- ware Bay. Upon approaching the Bay, the Cavelier received further instructions from the naval authorities that in her transit of the waters constituting the entrance to the bay, the Cavelier was to follow directly astern of the patrol boat, YP 249, a public vessel of the United States. While following directly astern of the YP 249, as ordered, the Cavelier struck a submerged wreck and sustained serious damages. It was further alleged that the collision with the wreck was due 'solely to the fault and negligence of the United States vessel YP 249 and those in charge of her.' 4 The libel also stated that petitioner, a Canadian corporation, elected to have its suit proceed in accordance with principles of libels in personam and in rem; that in similar circumstances the Government of the Dominion of Canada allows nationals of the United States to sue in its courts.

The respondent, United States, appeared specially and sought to have the libel dismissed because it failed to state a cause of action for which the United States had consented to be sued. Petitioner, the libellant, opposed this action, relying on Section 1 of the Public Vessels Act, 1925, which provided that a 'libel in personam in admiralty may be brought against the United States * * * for damages caused by a public vessel of the United States * * *.'5 The federal district court dismissed the libel on the ground that the accident alleged in the libel was not caused by the 'negligent operation of the vessel,' that the vessel was not the 'efficient cause' of the accident but that the accident arose from the 'personal and independent negligence of its officers.' The court held that the Act authorized suit only where the public vessel was the proximate cause of the damage.

The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the action of the district court on the theory that the phrase in the Act 'caused by a public vessel' meant caused by those in charge of the vessel, with the vessel as the 'noxious instrument,' the 'physical instrument,' by which the physical damage was done; that in the instant case the physical cause was the submerged wreck. The Circuit Court also held that the Act did not authorize recovery on the admiralty principles of in rem liability.

The dismissal by the lower court of petitioner's libel raises three questions for consideration by this Court: Does the Public Vessels Act, 1925, authorize suit against the United States where the public vessel is not the physical cause, the 'physical instrument' by which the damage is done; that is, is the Act confined to cases involving the collision situation? If not, does the Act, which authorizes the filing of a libel in personam against the United States, authorize recovery in such suit on admiralty principles of in rem as well as in personam liability? Finally, if the Act authorizes recovery on admiralty principles in rem and in personam, does petitioner's libel state a cause of action under those principles of admiralty law?

The Public Vessels Act, 1925, was the last in a series of statutes directed generally at affording private vessel owners an adequate and efficient remedy for damages arising from negligent operation of ships owned by the United States.6 Prior to 1916 a private owner whose ship was damaged by negligent operation of a vessel owned or operated by the United States could not recover from the United States for damages suffered due to the United States' immunity from suit. On the other hand, the United States could sue private owners for damages arising from their negligence. Recognizing the inequities of this situation, Congress passed numerous private acts granting relief in a particular case where a private vessel was damaged by negligent operation of a government ship. The delays coupled with the inconvenience to Congress of handling each claim by separate bill, led Congress to provide in the Shipping Act of 1916, 39 Stat. 728, 46 U.S.C.A. § 801 et seq., that Shipping Board vessels while employed as merchant vessels were subject to 'all laws, regulations, and liabilities governing merchant vessels' regardless of the fact that the United States owned or had an interest in them.7

In The Lake Monroe, 250 U.S. 246, 39 S.Ct. 460, 63 L.Ed. 952, this Court held that this statutory waiver of sovereign immunity from suit subjected Shipping Board merchant vessels to proceedings in rem in admiralty. Since the arrest and seizure of a vessel incident to an admiralty proceeding in rem proved embarrassing, Congress, in 1920, adopted the Suits in Admiralty Act, 41 Stat. 525, 46 U.S.C.A. § 741 et seq.,8 which provided generally that a 'libel in personam' for damages could be filed against the government in any case where if the government merchant vessel were privately owned or operated a 'proceeding in admiralty' could be maintained, Section 2; but that vessels subject to suit under the Act should not be subject to seizure or arrest, Section 1. Although Section 2 of the Act limited suit to the filing of 'a libel in personam,' this Court interpreted the provisions of Section 3 of the Act to authorize recovery in such suit on admiralty principles of in rem as well as in personam liability.9 Eastern Transportation Co. v. United States, 272 U.S. 675, 47 S.Ct. 289, 71 L.Ed. 472. The Act also provided that the United States should be entitled to the benefits of all exemptions and of all limitations of liability accorded by law to owners, charterers, operators or agents of vessels, Section 6.10

At the time the Suits in Admiralty Act was being considered by Congress, it was proposed to extend its coverage to include 'public vessels' as well as merchant vessels of the United States. Apparently fearing that such an extension of the scope of the bill would delay passage, the Suits in Admiralty Act was adopted, its provisions being confined to 'merchant vessels.'11

After the introduction of several bills12 dealing with suits against public vessels, Congress, in 1925, adopted the Public Vessels Act, 43 Stat. 1112. It provided that a 'libel in personam in admiralty may be brought against the United States * * * for damages caused by a public vessel of the United States.' Section 1.13 Venue of such suits is laid in the district court for the district 'in which the vessel or cargo charged with creating the liability is found within the United States.'14 Section 2. It was also provided that suits under the Act 'shall be subject to and proceed in accordance with the provisions of (Suits in Admiralty Act, 1920, 41 Stat. 525) or any amendment thereof, insofar as the same are not inconsistent herewith * * *.'15 The Act also specified that no suit may be brought by a national of a foreign government unless said foreign government, under similar circumstances allows nationals of the United States to sue in its courts, Section 5; Sections 8 and 9 of the Act contain provisions similar to those in the Suits in Admiralty Act, providing that the statute should not be construed to recognize the existence of a lien against a public vessel and conferring on the United States all exemptions and limitations of liability accorded by law to owners of private vessels.16

First: Respondent contends that Section 1 of the Public Vessels Act authorizing suits against the United States 'for damages caused by a public vessel' should be construed to apply only in cases where the public vessel is the 'physical instrument' by which the 'physical damage' is done, e.g. collision, that therefore petitioner's libel does not lie under the Act. Such a construction narrowly limits the Act's relief. We conclude that such a narrow interpretation of the Act is not justifiable. While the general history of the Act as outlined above does not establish that the statute necessarily extends to the noncollision cases in view of the rule of strict construction of statutory waiver of sovereign immunity, United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586, 61 S.Ct. 767, 769, 85 L.Ed. 1058; Eastern Transportation Co. v. United States, supra, we think Congressional adoption of broad statutory...

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