Chevron Oil Company v. Huson 8212 11

Decision Date06 December 1971
Docket NumberNo. 70,70
Citation1972 A.M.C. 20,92 S.Ct. 349,30 L.Ed.2d 296,404 U.S. 97
PartiesCHEVRON OIL COMPANY, Petitioner, v. Gaines Ted HUSON. —11
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent was injured in December 1965 while working on petitioner's artificial island drilling rig, located on the Outer Continental Shelf off the Louisiana coast. Allegedly, not until many months later were the injuries discovered to be serious. In January 1968 respondent brought suit for damages against petitioner in federal district court. The District Court, relying on Rodrigue v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 395 U.S. 352, 89 S.Ct. 1835, 23 L.Ed.2d 360 (1969), held that Louisiana's one-year limitation on personal injury actions applied rather than the admiralty laches doctrine, and granted petitioner's motion for summary judgment. Rodrigue had held that state law and not admiralty law applied to fixed structures on the Outer Continental Shelf under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (hereinafter Lands Act), and extended to that area as federal laws the laws of the adjacent State 'to the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent' with federal laws. Respondent argued on appeal that in view of pre-Rodrigue jurisprudence making admiralty law (including the laches doctrine) applicable, it would be unfair to give that decision retrospective effect. The Court of Appeals, not reaching that argument, reversed, holding that Louisiana's 'prescriptive' time limitation, which barred the remedy but did nto extinguish the right to recovery, was not binding outside a Louisiana forum. Consequently, the court concluded that the time limitation was not 'applicable' of its own force and was 'inconsistent' with the admiralty laches doctrine, which though not directly applicable by virtue of Rodrigue was applicable as a matter of federal common law. Held:

1. The Lands Act, as interpreted in Rodrigue, requires that a State's statute of limitations be applied to actions for personal injuries occurring on fixed structures on the Outer Continental Shelf. The fact that the Louisiana law is 'prescriptive' does not make it inapplicable as federal law under the Lands Act, and a federal court may not apply a laches test to preclude application of the state time limitation. Pp. 100—105.

2. The Louisiana one-year statute of limitations should not, however, bar respondent's action here since retroactive application of that statute under Rodrigue would deprive respondent of any remedy at all on the basis of the unforeseeable superseding legal doctrine of that decision. Pp. 105—109.

5 Cir., 430 F.2d 27, affirmed.

Lloyd Cyril Melancon, New Orleans, La., for petitioner.

Samuel C. Gainsburgh, New Orleans, La., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent, Gaines Ted Huson, suffered a back injury while working on an artificial island drilling rig owned and operated by the petitioner, Chevron Oil Co., and located on the Outer Continental Shelf off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. The injury occurred in December 1965. Allegedly, it was not until many months later that the injury was discovered to be a serious one. In January 1968 the respondent brought suit for damages against the petitioner in federal district court. The respondent's delay in suing the petitioner ultimately brought his case to this Court.

The issue presented is whether the respondent's action is time barred and, more particularly, whether state or federal law determines the timeliness of the action. That issue must be resolved under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 67 Stat. 462, 43 U.S.C. § 1331 et seq. (hereinafter 'Lands Act'), which governs injuries occurring on fixed structures on the Outer Continental Shelf. When this lawsuit was initiated, there was a line of federal court decisions interpreting the Lands Act to make general admiralty law, including the equitable doctrine of laches, applicable to personal injury suits such as the respondent's.1 The petitioner did not question the timeliness of the action as a matter of laches. While pretrial discovery proceedings were still under way, however, this Court announced its decision in Rodrigue v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 395 U.S. 352, 89 S.Ct. 1835, 23 L.Ed.2d 360. That decision entirely changed the complexion of this case. For it established that the Lands Act does not make admiralty law applicable to actions such as this one. Relying on Rodrigue, the District Court held that Louisiana's one-year limitation on personal injury actions, rather than the admiralty doctrine of laches, must govern this case. It concluded, therefore, that the respondent's action was time barred and granted summary judgment for the petitioner.2

On appeal, the respondent argued that Rodrigue should not be applied retroactively to bar actions filed before the date of its announcement.3 But the Court of Appeals declined to reach that question. Instead, it held that the interpretation of the Lands Act in Rodrigue does not compel application of the state statute of limitations or prevent application of the admiralty doctrine of laches. It concluded that the doctrine of laches should have been applied by the District Court and, therefore, reversed that court's judgment and remanded the case for trial. 5 Cir., 430 F.2d 27. We granted certiorari to consider the Court of Appeals' construction of the Lands Act and of Rodrigue. 402 U.S. 942, 91 S.Ct. 1608, 29 L.Ed.2d 109. We hold that the Lands Act, as interpreted in Rodrigue, requires that the state statute of limitations be applied to personal injury actions. We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals, however, on the ground that Rodrigue should not be invoked to require application of the Louisiana time limitation retroactively to this case.

I

The Lands Act makes the Outer Continental Shelf, including fixed structures thereon, an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction, 43 U.S.C. § 1333(a)(1). The Act extends the laws of the United States to this area, 43 U.S.C. § 1333(a) (1), and provides that the laws of the adjacent State shall also apply '(t)o the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent' with applicable federal laws, 43 U.S.C. § 1333(a)(2).4 To the extent that a comprehensive body of federal law is applicable under § 1333(a)(1), state law 'inconsistent' with that law would be inapplicable under § 1333(a)(2).

In Rodrigue, we clarified the scope of application of federal law and state law under § 1333(a)(1) and § 1333(a)(2). By rejecting the view that comprehensive admiralty law remedies apply under § 1333(a)(1), we recognized that there exists a substantial 'gap' in federal law. Thus, state law remedies are not 'inconsistent' with applicable federal law. Accordingly, we held that, in order to provide a remedy for wrongful death, the 'gap' must be filled with the applicable body of state law under § 1333(a)(2).

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that Rodrigue clearly establishes that the remedy for personal injury, as for wrongful death, cannot be derived from admiralty law but must be governed by the law of the adjacent State, Louisiana. But the court held that Louisiana's time limitation on personal injury actions need not be applied with the substantive remedy. It supported this holding by reference to the terms of § 1333(a)(2) that limit the application of state law under the Lands Act. The Louisiana time limitation, the Court of Appeals reasoned, is not 'applicable' of its own force and is 'inconsistent' with the admiralty doctrine of laches. The court held that, despite the holding in Rodrique, the laches doctrine is applicable as a matter of federal common law. We must disagree.

The Court of Appeals did not suggest that state statutes of limitations are per se inapplicable under § 1333(a)(2). Rather, it focused on the peculiar nature of the Louisiana time limitation on personal injury actions found in Art. 3536, La.Civ.Code Ann. Article 3536 provides that personal injury actions shall be 'prescribed' by one year. The Court of Appeals attached muct significance to the fact that Article 3536 'prescribes,' rather than 'perempts,' such actions. Under Louisiana law 'prescription,' unlike 'peremption,' bars the remedy but does not formally extinguish the right to recovery. See Page v. Cameron Iron Works, Inc., 5 Cir., 259 F.2d 420, 422—424; Istre v. Diamond M. Drilling Co., 226 So.2d 779, 794—795 (La.App.); Succession of Pizzillo, 223 La. 328, 335, 65 So.2d 783, 786. This characterization has importance under principles of the conflict of laws. It has been held, as a matter of Louisiana conflicts law, that mere 'prescriptive' time limitations are not binding outside their own forum. See Fidelity & Casualty Co. v. C/B Mr. Kim, 5 Cir., 345 F.2d 45, 50; Kozan v. Comstock, 5 Cir., 270 F.2d 839, 841; Istre v. Diamond M. Drilling Co., supra, 226 So.2d at 795. Reasoning from this principle of conflicts law, the Court of Appeals concluded that the 'prescriptive' limitation is not 'applicable' in a federal court adjudicating a claim under the Lands Act.

We hold, however, that the 'prescriptive' nature of Art. 3536 does not undercut its applicability under the Lands Act. Under § 1333(a)(2) of the Act, '(s)tate law bec(omes) federal law federally enforced.' Rodrigue v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., supra, 395 U.S., at 365, 89 S.Ct., at 1842. It was the intent of Congress, expressed in the Senate Committee Report, in the Conference Report, and on the floor of the Senate, that state laws be 'adopted' or 'enacted' as federal law. See id., at 357—358, 89 S.Ct., at 1838. Thus a federal court applying Louisiana law under § 1333(a)(2) of the Lands Act is applying it as federal law—as the law of the federal forum. Since the federal courts is not, then, applying the law of another forum in the usual sense, ordinary conflict of laws principles have no relevance. Article 3536 is 'applicable' in federal court under the Lands Act just as it would be applicable in a Louisiana...

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