Doucette v. Vincent, 4586.

Citation194 F.2d 834
Decision Date05 February 1952
Docket NumberNo. 4586.,4586.
PartiesDOUCETTE v. VINCENT et al.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)


Arnold Parker, Somerville, Mass. (Harry Kisloff, Boston, Mass., with him on the brief), for appellant.

Joseph F. Dolan, Boston, Mass., for appellees.

Before MAGRUDER, Chief Judge, and WOODBURY and HARTIGAN, Circuit Judges.

WOODBURY, Circuit Judge.

The plaintiff-appellant, William Doucette, alleging himself to be a fisherman and formerly a member of the crew of the R. W. Griffin, Jr., a fishing vessel owned by the defendants-appellees, brought this action on the law side of the court below to recover for personal injuries received when he was working at an electric winch on board the vessel on August 13, 1948, while she was tied up at a wharf in New Bedford, Massachusetts, discharging her catch of scallops. The complaint is in two counts. The first count, claiming damages of $50,000, is couched in such general terms that it can be construed as either under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness or under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.A. § 688, for negligence. At any rate, it alleges failure to provide the plaintiff with a reaonably safe appliance, specifically a snatchblock,1 for him to use in the prosecution of his work. The second count, claiming damages of $5,000, is clearly under the general maritime law for maintenance and care. At the conclusion of all the evidence counsel for the plaintiff waived any and all claim of negligence in any particular, and in consequence the first count was submitted to the jury as one for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law.2 Special questions were submitted to the jury on each count. As to the first, the jury found that the plaintiff had not proved by the greater weight of the credible evidence that the defendants had failed to furnish him with a reasonably safe and suitable snatchblock for his use on board the vessel at the time he was injured. As to the second, the jury found that the plaintiff could not be benefited by further medical treatment after August 13, 1949, one year after the accident happened. In accordance with these special verdicts, the court below entered judgment for the defendant on the first count, with costs, and judgment for the plaintiff on the second count in the amount of $1145 with costs but without interest.

On this appeal the plaintiff-appellant urges that as to the first count the court below erred in excluding certain evidence which he offered of the existence of a better and safer type of snatchblock suitable for use on the defendant's vessel, and as to the second count that the court erred in failing to add interest after August 13, 1949, to the amount of the verdict for maintenance and care.

Before passing to the merits, it is noted that the case necessarily presents a question whether the district court had jurisdiction, sitting as a court of law with a jury, not as a court of admiralty. It is our duty to dispose of this question, though it was not raised or argued by the parties to this appeal. Louisville & Nashville R. R. Co. v. Mottley, 1908, 211 U.S. 149, 152, 29 S.Ct. 42, 53 L.Ed. 126. The separate opinion of Judge Magruder, speaking for the court, deals with this phase of the case. Our conclusion is that the court below did have jurisdiction.

We turn now to the merits.

In accordance with general practice on board vessels of the type involved, scallops were unloaded from the R. W. Griffin, Jr., in a basket which when loaded weighed in the vicinity of 180 pounds. The basket was filled by men in the hold and when it was full a man on deck gave a signal to hoist it up. When it was lifted to a convenient height above the deck it was swung manually across the deck and over the dock and then lowered onto scales for weighing. For hoisting, the basket was hooked onto a line which ran up to a pully block attached to the outer end of the gaff, thence down through a snatchblock fastened to the boom near its point of attachment to the mast, and thence a short distance to the continuously revolving drum of an electrically driven winch located on deck near the mast. The plaintiff's duty as winchman consisted in watching for signals from the man on deck, and on signal putting about three turns of line around the drumhead of the winch and then taking up the slack to cause the line to tighten upon and move with the drumhead. The plaintiff's injury occurred when he became entangled in some way in the line and was caught between it and the drumhead.

The plaintiff's theory of his accident is that the snatchblock opened as he put strain on the line to hoist a basket of scallops, causing the line to slip out of the block and suddenly slacken, whereby he was caught in a loop of the line as it approached the drum. There is evidence, however, that the snatchblock did not open, but was closed with the line in it immediately after the accident, and that the defendant was drawn against the drumhead when part of his shirt caught in the line ahead of the drum.

In support of his theory the plaintiff at the trial offered testimony by an expert in naval architecture of the existence and common use, but not necessarily on scallopers, of a better and safer type of snatchblock than that used on the R. W. Griffin, Jr., i. e., of such a block equipped with some sort of spring device to prevent it from opening accidentally. The court rejected this offer of proof principally on two grounds: first because the defendants were under no obligation to provide the best appliance, and second because it would be prejudicial to the defendants, for evidence of the existence of a better and safer type of snatchblock might lead the jury to infer that the one in use was unsafe, whereas the "real question" for the jury "is whether under all the circumstances the snatchblock in question here was reasonably safe for the purpose for which it was being used, — not whether the defendants should have used a better or safer or the best appliance available."

At the time the testimony was offered the plaintiff had not elected between suit under the Jones Act for negligence and suit under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness. Therefore the court below was faced with the question of the admissibility of the testimony on either theory of liability. Now, however, it would seem that the appellant can only complain of its exclusion on the unseaworthiness theory upon which he elected to submit his case to the jury. Nevertheless on either theory, which for the purpose of the discussion to follow seem to us akin, we think the ruling of the court below excluding the offered evidence did not constitute reversible error.

It is clear on principle and fully established by the authorities that evidence of the existence of better or safer machines or appliances is not admissible for the purpose of establishing the legal standard for conduct in negligence cases. Hecht Co. v. Jacobsen, 1950, 86 U.S.App.D.C. 81, 180 F. 2d 13, 17 and cases cited. The reason for this is that the standard in such cases is fixed by the substantive law as the conduct of the ordinary man of average prudence under the circumstances. The best or the safest appliances are therefore not required, but only those which are reasonably suitable and adequate for the purpose. Thus the defendants' statutory duty under the Jones Act as owners of the R. W. Griffin, Jr. "was not to supply the best tools, but only tools which were reasonably safe and suitable," as the Supreme Court said in ruling in a Jones Act case that no reversible error was committed by the trial court in excluding testimony as to the best type of tool for the work in hand at the time the plaintiff was injured. Jacob v. New York City, 1942, 315 U.S. 752, 758, 62 S.Ct. 854, 86 L.Ed. 1166.

Nor is perfection required of shipowners by the maritime law of seaworthiness for generally stated it is the shipowner's duty under that law to provide a vessel sufficient, that is reasonably adequate, in materials, construction, equipment, stores, officers, men and outfit for the trade or service in which the vessel is employed. The Southwark, 1903, 191 U.S. 1, 8, 9, 24 S.Ct. 1, 48 L.Ed. 65; The Rolph, 9 Cir., 1924, 299 F. 52, 54, 55. See also, May v. Hamburg etc. Gesellschaft, 1933, 290 U.S. 333, 346, 54 S.Ct. 162, 78 L.Ed. 348. It is no matter that the shipowner may have used all care and diligence to supply a vessel and equipment conforming to this standard of seaworthiness. The liability does not depend on negligence. As stated in Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 1946, 328 U.S. 85, 95, 66 S.Ct. 872, 877, 90 L.Ed. 1099, it is "a form of absolute duty", that is, the shipowner must at his peril furnish a seaworthy ship and seaworthy equipment. But if the vessel and equipment, including the snatchblock here supplied, were reasonably safe and suitable, the shipowner's obligation was performed, even though there may have been some other type of snatchblock more modern or more perfect in some detail.

Thus we think the court below was correct in ruling the evidence offered by the plaintiff inadmissible for the purpose of fixing the defendants' substantive standard of conduct under either the negligence theory or the unseaworthiness theory, for under neither theory was the shipowner obligated to provide the best possible vessel and gear.

We come now to the question whether the evidence was admissible in discretion.

In negligence cases it is very generally held that while evidence of the sort offered by the plaintiff is never admissible for the purpose of fixing the substantive legal standard by which to measure a defendant's conduct, it is admissible in the discretion of the trial court, if accompanied by suitable cautionary instructions to the jury as to its use, for whatever evidentiary value it may have to show that a defendant did not take the care required by law in using the...

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