Kossick v. United Fruit Co, 96

Decision Date17 April 1961
Docket NumberNo. 96,96
Citation6 L.Ed.2d 56,365 U.S. 731,81 S.Ct. 886
PartiesJohn M. KOSSICK, Petitioner, v. UNITED FRUIT CO
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 366 U.S. 941, 81 S.Ct. 1657.

Mr. Jacob Rassner, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Eugene Underwood, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case calls in question the propriety of a dismissal before trial of the first cause of action in a seaman's diversity complaint. Dismissal was on the ground that the allegations of the complaint are deficient by reason of the New York Statute of Frauds.

The allegations of the complaint, which for present purposes must be taken as true, are in substance as follows: Petitioner, while employed as chief steward on one of the vessels of respondent, United Fruit Company, suffered a thyroid ailment, not attributable to any fault of the respondent, but with respect to which it concededly had a legal duty to provide him with maintenance and cure. The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, 23 S.Ct. 483, 47 L.Ed. 760. Respondent insisted that petitioner undergo treatment at a United States Public Health Service Hospital. Petitioner, however, considering on the basis of past experience that such treatment would prove unsatisfactory and inadequate, notified respondent that he wished to be treated by a private physician who had agreed to take care of him for $350, which amount petitioner insisted would by payable by the respondent in fulfillment of its obligation for maintenance and cure.

Respondent, the complaint continues, declined to accede to this course, but agreed that if petitioner would enter a Public Health Service Hospital (where he would receive free care) it would assume responsibility for all consequences of improper or inadequate treatment. Relying on that undertaking, and being unable himself to defray the cost of private treatment, petitioner underwent treatment at a Public Health Service Hospital. The Public Health Service Hospital and private physician alluded to were both located in New York.

Finally, it is alleged that by reason of the improper treatment received at such hospital, petitioner suffered grievous unwonted bodily injury, for which the respondent, because of its undertaking, is liable to the petitioner for damages in the amount of $250,000.1

The District Court dismissed the complaint, considering that the agreement sued on was void under the New York Statute of Frauds, N.Y. Personal Property Law, McKinney's Consol. Laws, c. 41, § 31, par. 2,2 there being no allegation that such agreement was evidenced by any writing, 166 F.Supp. 571. 3 The Court of Appeals affirmed. 275 F.2d 500. We brought the case here because it presented novel questions as to the interplay of state and maritime law. 363 U.S. 838, 80 S.Ct. 1613, 4 L.Ed.2d 1724.

At the outset, we think it clear that the lower courts were correct in regarding the sufficiency of this complaint as depending entirely upon its averments respecting respondent's alleged agreement with petitioner. Liability here certainly cannot be founded on principles of respondeat superior. Nor is there anything in the authorities relating to a shipowner's duty to provide maintenance and cure which suggests that respondent was obliged, as a matter of law, to honor petitioner's preference for private treatment, or that it was responsible for the quality of petitioner's treatment at other hands which, for all that appears, may reasonably have been assumed to be well trained and careful.

With respect to respondent's alleged agreed undertaking, as the case comes to us, petitioner, on the one hand, does not deny the contract's invalidity under the New York Statute of Frauds, if state law controls, nor, on the other hand, can its validity well be doubted, though the alleged agreement was not reduced to writing, if maritime law controls. For it is an established rule of ancient respectability that oral contracts are generally regarded as valid by maritime law.4 In this posture of things two questions must be decided: First, was this alleged contract a maritime one? Second, if so, was it nevertheless of such a 'local' nature that its validity should be judged by state law?


The boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction over contracts—as opposed to torts or crimes—being conceptual rather than spatial, have always been difficult to draw. Precedent and usage are helpful insofar as they exclude or include certain common types of contract: a contract to repair, Endner v. Greco, D.C., 3 F. 411, or to insure a ship, Insurance Co. v. Dunham, 11 Wall. 1, 20 L.Ed. 90, is maritime, but a contract to build a ship is not. People's Ferry Co. of Boston v. Beers, 20 How. 393, 15 L.Ed. 961. Without doubt a contract for hire either of a ship or of the sailors and officers to man her is within the admiralty jurisdiction. 1 Benedict, Admiralty, 366. A suit on a bond covering cargo on general average is governed by admiralty law, Cie. Francaise de Navigation a Vapeur v. Bonnasse, 2 Cir., 19 F.2d 777, while an agreement to pay damages for another's breach of a maritime charter is not, Pacific Surety Co. v. Leatham & Smith Towing & Wrecking Co., 7 Cir., 151 F. 440. The closest analogy we have found to the case at hand is a contract for hospital services rendered an injured seaman in satisfaction of a shipowner's liability for maintenance and cure, which has been held to be a maritime contract. Methodist Episcopal Hospital v. Pacific Transport Co., D.C., 3 F.2d 508. The principle by reference to which the cases are supposed to fall on one side of the line or the other is an exceedingly broad one. 'The only question is whether the transaction relates to ships and vessels, masters and mariners, as the agents of commerce * * *.' I Benedict, Admiralty, 131.5

The Court of Appeals here held:

'The contract sued on is not a maritime contract, since it was merely a promise to pay money, on land, if the former seaman should suffer injury at the hands of the United States Public Health Service personnel, on land, in the course of medical treatment. * * * For all that appears in the complaint, it may well be that the contract sued on was allegedly made after the maritime contract of employment of the plaintiff had been terminated. It really makes no difference whether this was so or not. All that remained was the performance by the shipowner of its undisputed obligation to supply maintenance and cure. The shipowner supplied plaintiff with a master's certificate, which was used by him to obtain admittance as a patient in the United States Public Health Service Hospital. * * * That took care of the obligation to furnish 'cure.' * * *' (275 F.2d 502).

With respect to the learned judges below, we think that is too narrow a view of the matter. It can as well be argued that the alleged contract related to and stood in place of a duty created by and known only in admiralty as a kind of fringe benefit to the maritime contract of hire. See Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, 287 U.S. 367, 53 S.Ct., 173, 77 L.Ed. 368. The Court of Appeals and respondent are certainly correct in considering that a shipowner's duty to provide maintenance and cure may ordinarily be discharged by the issuing of a master's certificate carrying admittance to a public hospital, and that a seaman who refuses such a certificate or the free treatment to which it entitles him without just cause, cannot further hold the shipowner to his duty to provide maintenance and cure. Williams v. United States, D.C., 133 F.Supp. 319; Luth v. Palmer Shipping Co., 3 Cir., 210 F.2d 224; The Bouker No. 2, 2 Cir., 241 F. 831; see Calmar S.S. Corp. v. Taylor, 303 U.S. 525, 58 S.Ct. 651, 82 L.Ed. 993. But without countenancing petitioner's intemperate aspersions against Public Health Service Hospitals, and rejecting as we have the noncontractual grounds upon which he seeks to predicate liability here, we nevertheless are clear that the duty to afford maintenance and cure is not simply and as a matter of law an obligation to provide for entrance to a public hospital. The cases which respondent cites hold no more than that a seaman who can receive adequate and proper care free of charge at a public hospital may not 'deliberately refuse the hospital privilege, and then assert a lien upon his vessel for the increased expense which his whim or taste has created.' The Bouker No. 2, supra, 241 F. at page 835. Presumably if a seaman refuses to enter a public hospital or, having entered, if he leaves to undergo treatment elsewhere, he may recover the cost of such other treatment upon proof that 'proper and adequate' cure was not available at such hospital. Cf. Williams v. United States; Luth v. Palmer Shipping Co., supra.

No matter how skeptical one may be that such a burden of proof could be sustained, or that an indigent seaman would be likely to risk losing his rights to free treatment on the chance of sustaining that burden, since we should not exclude that possibility as a matter of law as the Court of Appeals apparently did, it must follow that the con- tract here alleged should be regarded as an agreement on the part of petitioner to forego a course of treatment which might have involved respondent in some additional expense, in return for respondent's promise to make petitioner whole for any consequences of what appeared to it at the time as the cheaper alternative. In other words, the consideration for respondent's alleged promise was petitioner's good faith forbearance to press what he considered—perhaps erroneously—to be the full extent of his maritime right to maintenance and cure. Compare, American Law Institute, Restatement, Contracts § 75, 76. So viewed, we think that the alleged agreement was sufficiently related to peculiarly maritime concerns as not to put it, without more, beyond the pale of admiralty law.

This brings us, then, to the remaining, and what we believe is the controlling,...

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