Lauritzen v. Larsen

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation97 L.Ed. 1254,73 S.Ct. 921,345 U.S. 571
Docket NumberNo. 226,226
Decision Date25 May 1953

[Syllabus from pages 571-572 intentionally omitted] Mr. James M. Estabrook, New York City, for petitioner.

Messrs. George Halpern and Richard M. Cantor, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The key issue in this case is whether statutes of the United States should be applied to this claim of maritime tort. Larsen, a Danish seaman, while temporarily in New York joined the crew of the Randa, a ship of Danish flag and registry, owned by petitioner, a Danish citizen. Larsen signed ship's articles, written in Danish, providing that the rights of crew members would be governed by Danish law and by the employer's contract with the Danish Seamen's Union, of which Larsen was a member. He was negligently injured aboard the Randa in the course of employment, while in Havana harbor.

Respondent brought suit under the Jones Act1 on the law side of the District Court for the Southern District of New York and demanded a jury. Petitioner contended that Danish law was applicable and that, under it, respondent had received all of the compensation to which he was entitled. He also contested the court's jurisdiction. Entertaining the cause, the court ruled that American rather than Danish law applied, and the jury rendered a verdict of $4,267.50. The Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, affirmed.2 Its decision, at least superficially, is at variance with its own earlier ones3 and conflicts with one by the New York Court of Appeals.4 We granted certiorari.5

The question of jurisdiction is shortly answered. A suit to recover damages under the Jones Act is in personam against the ship's owner and not one in rem against the ship itself.6 The defendant appeared generally, answered and tendered no objection to jurisdiction of his person. As frequently happens, a contention that there is some barrier to granting plaintiff's claim is cast in terms of an exception to jurisdiction of subject matter. A cause of action under our law was asserted here, and the court had power to determine whether it was or was not well founded in law and in fact. Cf. Montana-Dakota Utilities Co. v. Northwestern Public Service Co., 341 U.S. 246, 249, 71 S.Ct. 692, 694, 95 L.Ed. 912.

Denmark has enacted a comprehensive code to govern the relations of her shipowners to her seagoing labor which by its terms and intentions controls this claim. Though it is not for us to decide, it is plausibly contended that all obligations of the owner growing out of Danish law have been performed or tendered to this seaman. The shipowner, supported here by the Danish Government, asserts that the Danish law supplies the full measure of his obligation and that maritime usage and international law as accepted by the United States exclude the application of our incompatible statute.

That allowance of an additional remedy under our Jones Act would sharply conflict with the policy and letter of Danish law is plain from a general comparison of the two systems of dealing with shipboard accidents. Both assure the ill or injured seafaring worker the conventional maintenance and cure at the shipowner's cost, regardless of fault or negligence on the part of anyone. But, while we limit this to the period within which maximum possible cure can be effected, Farrell v. United States, 336 U.S. 511, 69 S.Ct. 707, 93 L.Ed. 850, the Danish law limits it to a fixed period of twelve weeks, and the monetary measurement is different. The two systems are in sharpest conflict as to treatment of claims for disability, partial or complete, which are permanent, or which outlast the liability for maintenance and cure, to which class this claim belongs. Such injuries Danish law relieves under a state-operated plan similar to our workmen's compensa- tion systems. Claims for such disability are not made against the owner but against the state's Directorate of Insurance Against the Consequences of Accidents. They may be presented directly or through any Danish Consulate. They are allowed by administrative action, not by litigation, and depend not upon fault or negligence but only on the fact of injury and the extent of disability. Our own law, apart from indemnity for injury caused by the ship's unseaworthiness, makes no such compensation for such disability in the absence of fault or negligence. But, when such fault or negligence is established by litigation, it allows recovery for elements such as pain and suffering not compensated under Danish law and lets the damages be fixed by jury. In this case, since negligence was found, United States law permits a larger recovery than Danish law. If the same injury were sustained but negligence was absent or not provable, the Danish law would appear to provide compensation where ours would not.

Respondent does not deny that Danish law is applicable to his case. The contention as stated in his brief is rather that 'A claimant may select whatever forum he desires and receive the benefits resulting from such choice' and 'A ship owner is liable under the laws of the forum where he does business as well as in his own country.' This contention that the Jones Act provides an optional cumulative remedy is not based on any explicit terms of the Act, which makes no provision for cases in which remedies have been obtained or are obtainable under foreign law. Rather he relies upon the literal catholicity of its terminology. If read literally, Congress has conferred an American right of action which requires nothing more than that plaintiff be 'any seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment'. It makes no explicit requirement that either the seaman, the employment or the injury have the slightest connection with the United States. Unless some relationship of one or more of these to our national interest is implied, Congress has extended our law and opened our courts to all alien seafaring men injured anywhere in the world in service of watercraft of every foreign nation—a hand on a Chinese junk, never outside Chinese waters, would not be beyond its literal wording.

But Congress in 1920 wrote these all-comprehending words, not on a clean slate, but as a postscript to a long series of enactments governing shipping. All were enacted with regard to a seasoned body of maritime law developed by the experience of American courts long accustomed to dealing with admiralty problems in reconciling our own with foreign interests and in accommodating the reach of our own laws to those of other maritime nations.

The shipping laws of the United States, set forth in Title 46 of the United States Code, 46 U.S.C.A., comprise a patchwork of separate enactments, some tracing far back in our history and many designed for particular emergencies. While some have been specific in application to foreign shipping and others in being confined to American shipping, many give no evidence that Congress addressed itself to their foreign application and are in general terms which leave their application to be judicially determined from context and circumstance. By usage as old as the Nation, such statutes have been construed to apply only to areas and transactions in which American law would be considered operative under prevalent doctrines of international law. Thus, in United States v. Palmer, 3 Wheat. 610, 4 L.Ed. 471, this Court was called upon to interpret a statute of 1790, 1 Stat. 115, punishing certain acts when committed on the high seas by 'any person or persons,' terms which, as Mr. Chief Justice Marshall observed, are 'broad enough to comprehend every human being.' But the Court determined that the literal universality of the prohibition 'must not only be limited to cases within the jurisdiction of the state, but also to those objects to which the legislature intended to apply them', 3 Wheat. at page 631, 4 L.Ed. 471, and therefore would not reach a person performing the proscribed acts aboard the ship of a foreign state on the high seas.

This doctrine of construction is in accord with the long-heeded admonition of Mr. Chief Justice Marshall that 'an Act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remains * * *.' The Charming Betsey, 2 Cranch 64, 118, 2 L.Ed. 208. See The Nereide, 9 Cranch 388, 389, 423, 3 L.Ed. 769; MacLeod v. United States, 229 U.S. 416, 434, 33 S.Ct. 955, 961, 57 L.Ed. 1260; Sandberg v. McDonald, 248 U.S. 185, 195, 39 S.Ct. 84, 86, 63 L.Ed. 200. And it has long been accepted in maritime jurisprudence that '* * * if any construction otherwise be possible, an Act will not be construed as applying to foreigners in respect to acts done by them outside the dominions of the sovereign power enacting. That is a rule based on international law, by which one sovereign power is bound to respect the subjects and the rights of all other sovereign powers outside its own territory.' Lord Russell of Killowen in The Queen v. Jameson (1896), 2 Q.B. 425, 430. This is not, as sometimes is implied, any impairment of our own sovereignty, or limitation of the power of Congress. 'The law of the sea', we have had occasion to observe, 'is in a peculiar sense an international law, but application of its specific rules depends upon acceptance by the United States.' Farrell v. United States, 336 U.S. 511, 517, 69 S.Ct. 707, 710, 93 L.Ed. 850. On the contrary, we are simply dealing with a problem of statutory construction rather commonplace in a federal system by which courts often have to decide whether 'any' or 'every' reaches to the limits of the enacting authority's usual scope or is to be applied to foreign events or transactions. 7

The history of the statute before us begins with the 1915 enactment of the comprehensive LaFollette Act, entitled, 'An Act To promote the welfare of American seamen in the merchant marine of the United States; to...

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