Western Fuel Co v. Garcia 10, 1921, 28

Decision Date05 December 1921
Docket NumberNo. 28,28
PartiesWESTERN FUEL CO. v. GARCIA. Argued Oct. 7-10, 1921
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Joseph F. Murray, of New York City, Norman Fischer, of Washington, D. C., Ira S. Lillick, of San Francisco, Cal., and Robert M. McCormick, of New York City, for petitioner.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 233-237 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Henry Heidelberg, Christopher M. Bradley, and Warren H. Pillsbury, all of San Francisco, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice McREYNOLDS, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Circuit Court of Appeals certified certain questions for instruction and thereafter we directed that the cause be sent here for determination as if upon appeal. Judicial Code, § 239 (Comp. St. § 1216).

Manuel Souza, a citizen and resident of California, was instantly killed, August 5, 1916, while employed as a stevedore by the petitioner and at work in the hold of the Tancred, a Norwegian vessel under charter to it, then anchored in San Francisco Bay and discharging her cargo. The libel alleged that the injury was caused by coal negligently permitted to fall from a steel hoisting bucket.

Relying upon the California Workmen's Compensation Act of 1913 (St. 1913, p. 279), the Industrial Accident Commission granted an award in favor of the widow and children, which the Supreme Court of the state annulled August 6, 1917—a year and a day subsequent to the death.

Shortly thereafter—August 21st—the widow and children began an admiralty suit in personam against the petitioner in the United States District Court, Northern District of California, wherein they alleged that the accident resulted from its negligence and prayed for damages. Later respondent, having been appointed administrator, filed an amended libel with like allegations and prayer, and upon this the cause was ultimately tried. Petitioner denied liability and relied upon section 340, subsection 3, California Code of Civil Procedure, which requires that an action for damages consequent upon death caused by wrongful act, or negligence shall be brought within one year.1

The District Court held in favor of the administrator and awarded substantial damages; the Circuit Court of Appeals has sent up the whole cause under our direction.

It is established doctrine that no suit to recover damages for the death of a human being caused by negligence, may be maintained in the admiralty courts of the United States under the general maritime law. At the common law no civil action lies for an injury resulting from death. The maritime law as generally accepted by maritime nations leaves the matter untouched and in practice each of them has applied the same rule for the sea which it maintains on land. The Harrisburg, 119 U. S. 204, 213, 7 Sup. Ct. 140, 30 L. Ed. 358; The Alaska, 130 U. S. 201, 209, 9 Sup. Ct. 461, 32 L. Ed. 923; La Bourgogne, 210 U. S. 95, 138, 139, 28 Sup. Ct. 664, 52 L. Ed. 973.

How far this rule of nonliability adopted and enforced by our admiralty courts in the absence of an applicable statute may be modified, changed or supplemented by state legislation has been the subject of consideration here but no complete solution of the question has been announced.

In Cooley v. Board of Wardens, 12 How. 299, 13 L. Ed. 996, and Ex parte McNiel, 13 Wall. 236, 20 L. Ed. 624, the power of a state to legislate concerning subjects maritime in their nature was under discussion, and it was pointed out that as to certain local matters a state statute may grant rights which will be enforced in an admiralty court.

In American Steamboat Co. v. Chace, 16 Wall. 531, 532, 21 L. Ed. 369, the decedent was killed on navigable waters within Rhode Island. Relying upon the death statute of that state his administrator sued and recovered in one of its courts. This court affirmed the judgment. Whether an admiralty court could have entertained a proceeding based upon the statute was mooted but not determined.

Sherlock v. Alling, 93 U. S. 99, 23 L. Ed. 819, arose out a collision between steamboats on the Ohio river within the limits of Indiana whose statute gave a right of action for death caused by wrongful act, and a recovery in the state court was affirmed here. The defense rested primarily upon the erroneous theory that the statute encroached upon the commercial powers of Congress. There was no discussion of the point now directly presented. In Butler v. Boston, etc., Steamship Co., 130 U. S. 557, 558, 9 Sup. Ct. 612, 32 L. Ed. 1017, the point was raised but left without expression of opinion.

The Hamilton, 207 U. S. 398, 405, 28 Sup. Ct. 133, 52 L. Ed. 264, an admiralty proceeding for limitation of liability, affirmed the validity of claims for damages resulting from death at sea based upon the statute of Delaware where the vessel's owner had been incorporated.

The inferior federal courts on the admiralty side have enforced rights of action based upon death statutes holding they had jurisdiction as the claims grew out of torts on navigable waters and were maritime in their nature. The City of Norwalk, (D. C.) 55 Fed. 98, and the cases cited. See also Hughes on Admiralty (2d Ed.) pp. 228, 230, et seq.

In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U. S. 205, 37 Sup. Ct. 524, 61 L. Ed. 1086, L. R. A. 1918C, 451, Ann. Cas. 1917E, 900, Chelentis v. Luckenback Steamship Co., 247 U. S. 372, 38 Sup. Ct. 501, 62 L. Ed. 1171, Union Fish Co. v. Erickson, 247 U. S. 308, 39 Sup. Ct. 112, 63 L. Ed. 261, and Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U. S. 149, 40 Sup. Ct. 438, 64 L. Ed. 834, 11 A. L. R. 1145, we have recently discussed the theory under which the general maritime law became a part of our national law and pointed out the inability of the states to change its general features so as to defeat uniformity—but the power of a state to make some modifications or supplements was affirmed. And we further held that rights and liabilities in respect of torts upon the sea ordinarily depend upon the rules accepted and applied in admiralty courts which are controlling wherever suit may be instituted. Under this view, American Steamboat Co. v. Chace and Sherlock v. Alling support the right to recover under a local statute in an admiralty court for death occurring on navigable waters within the state when caused by tort there committed.

As the logical result of prior decisions we think it follows that where death upon such waters follows from a maritime tort committed on navigable waters within a state whose statutes give a right of action on account of death by wrongful act, the admiralty courts will entertain a libel in personam for the damages sustained by those to whom such right is given. The subject is maritime and local in character and the...

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