Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, No. 22

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSTEWART
Citation358 U.S. 625,79 S.Ct. 406,3 L.Ed.2d 550
PartiesJoseph KERMAREC, Petitioner, v. COMPAGNIE GENERALE TRANSATLANTIQUE
Docket NumberNo. 22
Decision Date24 February 1959

358 U.S. 625
79 S.Ct. 406
3 L.Ed.2d 550
Joseph KERMAREC, Petitioner,

v.

COMPAGNIE GENERALE TRANSATLANTIQUE.

No. 22.
Argued Nov. 13, 1958.
Decided Feb. 24, 1959.

Page 626

Mr. Edward J. Malament, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. George A. Garvey, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

On November 24, 1948, the respondent's vessel, the S. S. Oregon, was berthed at a pier in the North River, New York City. About noon on that day Joseph Kermarec came aboard to visit Henry Yves, a member of the ship's crew. The purpose of the visit was entirely personal, to pay a social call upon Yves and to give him a package to be delivered to a mutual friend in France. In accordance with customary practice permitting crew members to entertain guests aboard the vessel, Yves had obtained a pass from the executive officer authorizing Kermarec to come aboard.1 As he started to leave the ship serveral hours later, Kermarec fell and was injured while descending a stairway.

On the theory that his fall had been caused by the defective manner in which a canvas runner had been

Page 627

tacked to the stairway, Kermarec brought an action for personal injuries in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging unseaworthiness of the vessel and negligence on the part of its crew. Federal jurisdiction was invoked by reason of the diverse citizenship of the parties, and a jury trial was demanded.

The district judge was of the view that the substantive law of New York was applicable. Accordingly, he eliminated the unseaworthiness claim from the case and instructed the jury that Kermarec was 'a gratuitous licensee' who could recover only if the defendant had failed to warn him of a dangerous condition within its actual knowledge, and only if Kermarec himself had been entirely free of contributory negligence.2

The jury returned a verdict in Kermarec's favor. Subsequently the trial court granted a motion to set the verdict aside and dismiss the complaint, ruling that there

Page 628

had been a complete failure of proof that the shipowner had actually known that the stairway was in a dangerous or defective condition. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed. The opinion of that court does not make clear whether affirmance was based upon agreement with the trial judge that New York law was applicable, or upon a determination that the controlling legal principles would in any event be no different under maritime law. 245 F.2d 175. Certiorari was granted to examine both of these issues. 355 U.S. 902, 78 S.Ct. 335, 2 L.Ed.2d 259.

The District Court was in error in ruling that the governing law in this case was that of the State of New York. Kermarec was injured aboard a ship upon navigable waters. It was there that the conduct of which he complained occurred. The legal rights and liabilities arising from that conduct were therefore within the full reach of the admiralty jurisdiction and measurable by the standards of maritime law. See The Plymouth, 3 Wall. 20, 18 L.Ed. 125; Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Co. v. Philadelphia and Havre de Grace Steam Tugboat Co., 23 How. 209, 215, 16 L.Ed. 433; The Commerce, 1 Black 574, 579, 17 L.Ed. 107; The Rock Island Bridge, 6 Wall. 213, 215, 18 L.Ed. 753; The Belfast, 7 Wall. 624, 640, 19 L.Ed. 266; Leathers v. Blessing, 105 U.S. 626, 630, 26 L.Ed. 1192; The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649, 651, 55 S.Ct. 885, 886, 79 L.Ed. 1633. If this action had been brought in a state court, reference to admiralty law would have been necessary to determine the rights and liabilities of the parties. Carlisle Packing Co. v. Sandanger, 259 U.S. 255, 259, 42 S.Ct. 475, 476, 66 L.Ed. 927. Where the plaintiff exercises the right conferred by diversity of citizenship to choose a federal forum, the result is no different, even though he exercises the further right to a jury trial. Whatever doubt may once have existed on that score was effectively laid to rest by Pope & Talbot, Inc., v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 410—411, 74 S.Ct. 202, 204, 98 L.Ed. 143. It thus becomes necessary to consider whether prejudice resulted from the court's application of the substantive law of New York.

Page 629

In instructing the jury that contributory negligence on Kermarec's part would operate as a complete bar to recovery, the district judge was clearly in error. The jury should have been told instead that Kermarec's contributory negligence was to be considered only in mitigation of damages. The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1, 11 S.Ct. 29, 34 L.Ed. 586; Pope & Talbot, Inc., v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408—409, 74 S.Ct. 202, 204. It is equally clear, however, that this error did not prejudice Kermarec. By returning a verdict in his favor, the jury necessarily found that Kermarec had not in fact been guilty of contributory negligence 'even in the slightest degree.'

The district judge refused to submit the issue of unseaworthiness to the jury for the reason that an action for unseaworthiness is unknown to the common law of New York. Although the basis for its action was inappropriate, the court was correct in eliminating the unseaworthiness claim from this case. Kermarec was not a member of the ship's company, nor of that broadened class of workmen to whom the admiralty law has latterly extended the absolute right to a seaworthy ship. See Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., 321 U.S. 96, 64 S.Ct. 455, 88 L.Ed. 561; Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 66 S.Ct. 872, 90 L.Ed. 1099; Pope & Talbot, Inc., v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 74 S.Ct. 202. Kermarec was aboard not to perform ship's work, but simply to visit a friend.

It is apparent, therefore, that prejudicial error occurred in this case only if the maritime law imposed upon the shipowner a standard of care higher than the duty which the district judge found owing to a gratuitous licenses under the law of New York. If, in other words, the shipowner owed Kermarec the duty of exercising ordinary care, then upon this record Kermarec was entitled to judgment, the jury having resolved the factual issues in his favor under instructions less favorable to him than should

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have been given.3 Stated broadly, the decisive issue is thus whether admiralty recognizes the same distinctions between an invitee and a licensee as...

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803 practice notes
  • Walters v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., No. 15
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • January 14, 1963
    ...Lines, 352 U.S. 521, 77 S.Ct. 459, 1 L.Ed.2d 515, reversing 2 Cir., 228 F.2d 891; and Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 79 S.Ct. 406, 3 L.Ed.2d 550, vacating 2 Cir., 245 F.2d 8 See my dissents in cases cited in notes 4 and 5 supra. 9 Hence nearly all the decision......
  • Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., No. 93-1736
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit
    • December 7, 1994
    ...and seamen where non-seamen cannot take advantage of the doctrine of unseaworthiness. See Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 629, 79 S.Ct. 406, 409, 3 L.Ed.2d 550 (1959); Gremillion v. Gulf Coast Catering Co., 904 F.2d 290, 294 n. 11 (5th Cir.1990). For instance, ......
  • Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., No. 13–13067.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • November 10, 2014
    ...the carrier's more general duty to exercise “reasonable care under the circumstances.” Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 632, 79 S.Ct. 406, 410, 3 L.Ed.2d 550 (1959). Franza does not argue that Royal Caribbean violated this duty directly. Rather, she asks us to h......
  • Glus v. G. C. Murphy Co., AFL-CI
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • November 3, 1980
    ...Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 405 n. 17, 90 S.Ct. 1772, 1790, 26 L.Ed.2d 339 (1970); Kermarec v. Compagnie Gerale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630-32, 79 S.Ct. 406, 409-410, 3 L.Ed.2d 550 (1959). In such cases, because of the absence of statutory law, the Court is required to make law......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
802 cases
  • Walters v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., No. 15
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • January 14, 1963
    ...Lines, 352 U.S. 521, 77 S.Ct. 459, 1 L.Ed.2d 515, reversing 2 Cir., 228 F.2d 891; and Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 79 S.Ct. 406, 3 L.Ed.2d 550, vacating 2 Cir., 245 F.2d 8 See my dissents in cases cited in notes 4 and 5 supra. 9 Hence nearly all the decision......
  • Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., No. 93-1736
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit
    • December 7, 1994
    ...and seamen where non-seamen cannot take advantage of the doctrine of unseaworthiness. See Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 629, 79 S.Ct. 406, 409, 3 L.Ed.2d 550 (1959); Gremillion v. Gulf Coast Catering Co., 904 F.2d 290, 294 n. 11 (5th Cir.1990). For instance, ......
  • Franza v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., No. 13–13067.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • November 10, 2014
    ...the carrier's more general duty to exercise “reasonable care under the circumstances.” Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 632, 79 S.Ct. 406, 410, 3 L.Ed.2d 550 (1959). Franza does not argue that Royal Caribbean violated this duty directly. Rather, she asks us to h......
  • Glus v. G. C. Murphy Co., AFL-CI
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • November 3, 1980
    ...Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 405 n. 17, 90 S.Ct. 1772, 1790, 26 L.Ed.2d 339 (1970); Kermarec v. Compagnie Gerale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630-32, 79 S.Ct. 406, 409-410, 3 L.Ed.2d 550 (1959). In such cases, because of the absence of statutory law, the Court is required to make law......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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