Victory Carriers, Inc v. Law 8212 54 18 8212 19, 1971

Citation92 S.Ct. 418,30 L.Ed.2d 383,1972 A.M.C. 1,404 U.S. 202
Decision Date13 December 1971
Docket NumberNo. 70,70
PartiesVICTORY CARRIERS, INC., et al., Petitioners, v. Bill LAW. —54. Argued Oct. 18—19, 1971
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

See 404 U.S. 1064, 92 S.Ct. 731.


State law and not federal maritime law held to govern suit by respondent longshoreman who was injured by alleged defect in his stevedore employer's pierbased forklift truck which respondent was operating on the dock to transfer cargo to a point alongside a vessel where it was to be hoisted aboard by the ship's own gear. Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 66 S.Ct. 872, 90 L.Ed. 1099, and Gutierrez v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 373 U.S. 206, 83 S.Ct. 1185, 10 L.Ed.2d 297, distinguished. Pp. 204—216, 432 F.2d 376, reversed.

W. Boyd Reeves, Mobile, Ala., for the petitioners.

Ross Diamond, Jr., Mobile, Ala., for the respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented here is whether state law or federal maritime law governs the suit of a longshoreman injured on a pier while driving a forklift truck which was moving cargo that would ultimately be loaded aboard ship.

The facts are undisputed. When the accident happened, respondent Bill Law, a longshoreman employed by Gulf Stevedore Corp. in Mobile, Alabama, was on the pier driving a forklift loaded with cargo destined for the S.S. Sagamore Hill, a vessel owned by petitioner Victory Carriers, Inc., which was tied up at the pier. Law had picked up the load on the dock and was transferring it to a point alongside the vessel where it was to be subsequently hoisted aboard by the ship's own gear. The forklift was owned and under the direction of his stevedore employer. As Law returned toward the pickup point, the overhead protection rack of the forklift came loose and fell on him. He subsequently brought an action in a federal District Court against the ship and Victory Carriers, Inc., claiming that the unseaworthiness of the vessel and the negligence of Victory had caused his injuries. His claim invoked both the diversity jurisdiction of the District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and its admiralty and maritime jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1333. Victory filed a third-party complaint against Gulf for indemnity in the event Victory was held liable to Law. The unseaworthiness claim became the critical issue.1 On cross motions for summary judgment, the District Court gave judgment for petitioners on the ground that Law was not engaged in loading the vessel and that the doctrine of unseaworthiness did not extend to him. The Court of Appeals reversed. Relying on Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 66 S.Ct. 872, 90 L.Ed. 1099 (1946), and Gutierrez v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 373 U.S. 206, 83 S.Ct. 1185, 10 L.Ed.2d 297 (1963), it held that the fundamental question was whether Law at the time was engaged in loading the Sagamore Hill and that since he was so engaged, he should be entitled to prove his allegations of unseaworthiness at a trial. We granted certiorari and now reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Article III, § 2, cl. 1, of the Constitution of the United States extends the federal judicial power 'to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.' Congress has implemented that provision by 28 U.S.C. § 1333 which now provides that the district courts shall 'have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of * * * (a)ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction, saving to suitors in all cases all other remedies to which they are otherwise entitled.' Under the saving-to-suitors clause of § 1333, the plaintiff was entitled to assert his claims under the diversity jurisdiction of the District Court, as well as under § 1333 itself, cf. Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 410—411, 74 S.Ct. 202, 205—206, 98 L.Ed. 143 (1953), but under either section the claim that a ship or its gear was unseaworthy would be rooted in federal maritime law, not the law of the State of Alabama. Id., at 409, 74 S.Ct., at 204—205. Whether federal maritime law governed this accident in turn depends on whether this is a case within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction conferred on the district courts by the Constitution and the jurisdictional statutes. More precisely, the threshold issue is whether maritime law governs accidents suffered by a longshoreman who is injured on the dock by allegedly defective equipment owned and operated by his stevedore employer. We hold that under the controlling precedents, federal maritime law does not govern this accident. Nor, in the absence of congressional guidance, are we now inclined to depart from prior law and extend the reach of the federal law to pier-side accidents caused by a stevedore's pier-based equipment.

The historic view of this Court has been that the maritime tort jurisdiction of the federal courts is determined by the locality of the accident and that maritime law governs only those torts occurring on the navigable waters of the United States. Maritime contracts are differently viewed, but as Mr. Justice Story remarked long ago:

'In regard to torts I have always understood, that the jurisdiction of the admiralty is exclusively dependent upon the locality of the Act. The admiralty has not, and never (I believe) deliberately claimed to have any jurisdiction over torts, except such as are maritime torts, that is, such as are committed on the high seas, or on waters within the ebb and flow of the tide.' Thomas v. Lane, 23 Fed.Cas. pp. 957, 960, No. 13,902 (C.C.Me. 1813).

The view has been constantly reiterated.2

'The general doctrine that in contract matters admiralty jurisdiction depends upon the nature of the transaction and in tort matters upon the locality, has been so frequently asserted by this court that it must now be treated as settled.' Grant Smith-Porter Ship Co. v. Rohde, 257 U.S. 469, 476, 42 S.Ct. 157, 158, 66 L.Ed. 321 (1922).

The maritime law was thought to reach '(e)very species of tort, however occurring, and whether on board a vessel or not, if upon the high seas or navigable waters * * *.' Atlantic Transport Co. v. Imbrovek, 234 U.S. 52, 60, 34 S.Ct. 733, 734, 58 L.Ed. 1208 (1914). But, accidents on land were not within the maritime jurisdiction as historically construed by this Court.3 Piers and docks were consistently deemed extensions of land;4 injuries inflicted to or on them were held not compensable under the maritime law. The Plymouth, 3 Wall. 20, 36, 18 L.Ed. 125 (1866); Ex parte Phenix Insurance Co., 118 U.S. 610, 618—619, 7 S.Ct. 25, 28—29, 30 L.Ed. 274 (1886); Johnson v. Chicago & Pacific Elevator Co., 119 U.S. 388, 397, 7 S.Ct. 254, 258, 30 L.Ed. 447 (1886); Cleveland Terminal & Valley R. Co. v. Cleveland S.S. Co., 208 U.S. 316, 320, 28 S.Ct. 414, 415, 52 L.Ed. 508 (1908). The gangplank has served as a rough dividing line between the state and maritime regimes.

In defense of this boundary and the exclusive jurisdiction of the maritime law, the Court twice rejected congressional efforts to apply state workmen's compensation statutes to shipboard injuries suffered by maritime workers and longshoremen.5 Accepting these decisions, Congress passed the Longshoremen's and Harbor Work- ers' Compensation Act6 in 1927, providing a system of compensation for longshoremen injured on navigable waters but anticipating that dockside accidents would remain under the umbrella of state law and state workmen's compensation systems. Nacirema Operating Co. v. Johnson, 396 U.S. 212, 217—219, 90 S.Ct. 347, 351—352, 24 L.Ed.2d 371 (1969); South Chicago Coal & Dock Co. v. Bassett, 309 U.S. 251, 256—257, 60 S.Ct. 544, 547—548, 84 L.Ed. 732 (1940). The relative roles of state and federal law nevertheless remained somewhat confused on the seaward side of the pier.7 But shoreward, absent legislation, the line held fast. The Court refused to permit recovery in admiralty even where a ship or its gear, through collision or otherwise, caused damage to persons ashore or to bridges, docks, or other shore-based property. The Plymouth, supra; Cleveland Terminal & Valley R. Co. v. Cleveland S.S. Co., supra; The Troy, 208 U.S. 321, 28 S.Ct. 416, 52 L.Ed. 512 (1908); Martin v. West, 222 U.S. 191, 32 S.Ct. 42, 56 L.Ed. 159 (1911).

Congress was dissatisfied with these decisions and passed the Admiralty Extension Act of 1948 specifically to overrule or circumvent this line of cases.8 The law as enacted provided that '(t)he admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States shall extend to and include all cases of damage or injury, to person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable water, notwithstanding that such damage or injury be done or consummated on land.' 62 Stat. 496, 46 U.S.C. § 740. The statute survived constitutional attack in the lower federal courts9 and was applied without question by this Court in Gutierrez, supra, to provide compensation for a longshoreman injured on a dock by defective cargo containers being unloaded from a ship located on navigable waters. No case in this Court has sustained the application of maritime law to the kind of accident that occurred in this case. State Industrial Comm'n v. Nordenholt Corp., 259 U.S. 263, 42 S.Ct., 473, 66 L.Ed. 933 (1922), has not been overruled. There, the Court held that compensation for a longshoreman injured when he slipped on a dock while stacking bags of cement that had been unloaded from a ship was governed by local law, not federal maritime law.

It is argued, however, that if a longshoreman may recover for unseaworthiness if injured on a ship in the course of the unloading process, Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, supra, and if he has an unseaworthiness claim for injuries sustained on the pier and caused by the ship's unloading gear, Gutierrez, supra, he is also entitled to sue in admiralty when he is injured on the dock by his own employer's equipment at the time he is engaged in the service of a ship located on navigable waters. Sieracki, su...

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