CHELENTIS V. LUCKENBACH S.S. CO., INC., 247 U. S. 372 (1918)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., Inc., 247 U.S. 372 (1918)

Chelentis v. Luckenbach Steamship Company, Incorporated

No. 657

Argued April 18, 1918

Decided June 3, 1918

247 U.S. 372




By the general maritime law, the vessel owner is liable only for the maintenance, cure, and wages of a seaman injured in the service of his .ship, by the negligence of a member of the crew, whether

Page 247 U. S. 373

a superior officer or not, and this liability is not subject to be enlarged to full common law indemnity by the law of a state. Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U. S. 205. So held in a case brought in a state court of New York and removed to the district court, to recover full common law damages from a Delaware owner for injuries received at sea on a voyage to New York.

Section 20 of the Seamen's Act of March 4, 1915, c. 153, 38 Stat. 1185, declaring "seamen having command shall not be held to be fellow servants with those under their authority," was not intended to substitute the common law measure of liability for the maritime rule in such cases.

The Judiciary Act of 1789, § 9, giving exclusive original admiralty and maritime jurisdiction to the district courts, saves "to suitor, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it." Held that this, recognizing the fundamental distinction between rights and remedies, allows a right sanctioned by maritime law to be enforced through an appropriate common law remedy, but does not give a plaintiff his election to have the defendant's liability measured by common law standards instead of those prescribed by the maritime law.

243 F.5d 6 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 247 U. S. 378

MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In December, 1915, petitioner was employed by respondent, a Delaware corporation as fireman on board the steamship J. L. Luckenbach, which it then operated and controlled. While at sea, twenty-four hours out from New York, the port of destination, petitioner undertook to perform certain duties on deck during a heavy wind; a wave came aboard, knocked him down, and broke his leg. He received due care immediately; when the vessel arrived at destination, he was taken to the marine hospital, where he remained for three months; during that time, it became necessary to amputate his leg. After discharge from the hospital, claiming that his injuries resulted from the negligence and an improvident order of a superior

Page 247 U. S. 379

officer, he instituted a common law action in Supreme Court, New York County, demanding full indemnity for damage sustained. The cause was removed to the United States district court because of diverse citizenship. Counsel did not question seaworthiness of ship or her appliances, and announced that no claim was made for maintenance, cure, or wages. At conclusion of plaintiff's evidence, the court directed verdict for respondent, and judgment thereon was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals. 243 F.5d 6. The latter court said:

"The contract of a seaman is maritime, and has written into it those peculiar features of the maritime law that were considered in the case of The Osceola, [189 U.S. 158], and although, because of these peculiarities, such contracts are almost invariably litigated in admiralty courts, still the contract must be the same in every court, maritime or common law. The only difference between a proceeding in one court or the other would be that the remedy would be regulated by the lex fori. If a seaman who had been locked up or put in irons for disobedience of orders were to sue the master for damages in a court of common law, he could not recover like a shore servant, such as a cook or chauffeur, who had received the same treatment. So a seaman, bringing suit in a common law court for personal injuries, could recover, even if guilty of contributory negligence, although a shore servant suing in the same court could not, and a seaman suing in a common law court for personal injuries could recover (except in the case of unseaworthiness of the vessel or failure to give proper care and medical attention) only wages to the end of the voyage and the expenses for maintenance and cure for a reasonable time thereafter, whereas in a similar case a shore servant would be entitled to recover full indemnity. Therefore, by virtue of the inherent nature of the seaman's contract, the defendant's negligence and the plaintiff's contributory negligence were totally immaterial

Page 247 U. S. 380

considerations in this case; the sole question for the jury to determine being whether the plaintiff was entitled to recover because he had not received from the defendant his wages to the end of the voyage and the expense for his maintenance and cure for a reasonable time thereafter."

"Has Congress changed the situation by § 20 of the Seamen's Act [c. 153, 38 Stat. 1164, 1185], as the plaintiff contends? He argues that the act makes the master a fellow servant of the seaman, and therefore that Congress intended to make the relation between the seaman and all the officers throughout the same as at common law. But the Supreme Court, in the case of The Osceola, supra, while reserving the question whether the master and seaman were fellow servants, held that it made no difference whatever in respect to the liability of the shipowners for an improvident order of the master which resulted in personal injuries to the seaman. . . ."

"It follows that whether the master and seaman are fellow servants or not is quite immaterial in the case of a suit for injuries resulting from an improvident order of the master. For this reason, the court was right in directing a verdict for the defendant, and the judgment is affirmed."

In The Osceola, 189 U. S. 158, 189 U. S. 175, a libel in rem to recover damages for personal injuries to a seaman while on board and alleged to have resulted from the master's negligence, speaking through Mr. Justice Brown, we held:

"1. That the vessel and her owners are liable, in case a seaman falls sick, or is wounded, in the service of the ship, to the extent of his maintenance and cure, and to his wages at least so long as the voyage is continued."

"2. That the vessel and her owner are, both by English and American law, liable to an indemnity for injuries

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received by seamen in consequence of the unseaworthiness of the ship or a failure to supply and keep in order the proper appliances appurtenant to the ship. Scarff v. Metcalf, 107 N.Y. 211."

"3. That all the members of the crew, except perhaps the master, are, as between themselves, fellow servants, and hence seamen cannot recover for injuries sustained through the negligence of another member of the crew beyond the expense of their maintenance and cure."

"4. That the seaman is not allowed to recover an indemnity for the negligence of the master or any member of the crew, but is entitled to maintenance and cure whether the injuries were received by negligence or accident."

After reference to Article I, § 8, and Article III, § 2, of the Constitution, we declared in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U. S. 205, 244 U. S. 215-216:

"Considering our former opinions, it must now be accepted as settled doctrine that, in consequence of these provisions, Congress has paramount power to fix and determine the maritime law which shall prevail throughout the country. . . . And further, that, in the absence of some controlling statute, the general maritime law, as accepted by the federal courts, constitutes part of our national law, applicable to matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction."

Concerning extent to which the general maritime law may be changed, modified, or affected by state legislation, this was said:

"No such legislation is valid if it contravenes the essential purpose expressed by an act of Congress, or works material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, or interferes with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations. This limitation, at the least, is essential to the effective operation of the fundamental purposes for which such

Page 247 U. S. 382

law was incorporated into our national laws by the Constitution itself. These purposes are forcefully indicated in the foregoing quotations from The Lottawanna,"

21 Wall. 558, 88 U. S. 575.

Among such quotations is the following:

"One thing, however, is unquestionable: the Constitution must have referred to a system of law coextensive with, and operating uniformly in, the whole country. It certainly could not have been the intention to place the rules and limits of maritime law under the disposal and regulation of the several states, as that would have defeated the uniformity and consistency at which the Constitution aimed on all subjects of a commercial character affecting the intercourse of the states with each other or with foreign states."

The work about which petitioner was engaged is maritime in its nature; his employment was a maritime contract; the injuries received were likewise maritime, and the parties' rights and liabilities were matters clearly within the admiralty jurisdiction. Atlantic Transportation Co. v. Imbrovek, 234 U. S. 52, 234 U. S. 59-60. And unless in some way there was imposed upon the owners a liability different from that prescribed by maritime law, petitioner could properly demand only wages, maintenance, and cure. Under the doctrine approved in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, no state has power to abolish the well recognized maritime rule concerning measure of recovery and substitute therefor the full indemnity rule of the common law. Such a substitution would distinctly and definitely change or add to the settled maritime law, and it would be destructive of the

"uniformity and consistency at which the Constitution aimed on all subjects of a commercial character affecting the intercourse of the states with each other or with foreign states."

Two acts of Congress are relied upon, and it is said that, under each, petitioner has the right to recover full indemnity

Page 247 U. S. 383

according to the common law. They are: (1) Section 9, Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 76, 77, whereby district courts of the United States were given exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, "saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it" (Judicial Code, §§ 24, 256), and (2) § 20 of Act to Promote the Welfare of American Seamen, approved March 4, 1915, c. 153, 38 Stat. 1164, 1185, which provides:

"That in any suit to recover damages for any injury sustained on board vessel or in its service, seamen having command shall not be held to be fellow servants with those under their authority."

The precise effect of the quoted clause of the original Judiciary Act has not been delimited by this Court, and different views have been entertained concerning it. In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, we definitely ruled that it gave no authority to the several states to enact legislation which would work

"material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law or interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations."

In @ 71 U. S. 431, we said:

"That clause only saves to suitors 'the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it.' It is not a remedy in the common law courts which is saved, but a common law remedy. A proceeding in rem, as used in the admiralty courts, is not a remedy afforded by the common law; it is a proceeding under the civil law."

And in Knapp, Stout & Co. v. McCaffrey, 177 U. S. 638, 177 U. S. 644, 177 U. S. 648:

"Some of the cases already cited recognize the distinction between a common law action and a common law remedy. Thus, in The Moses Taylor, . . . it is said of the saving clause of the Judiciary Act: 'It is not a remedy in the common law courts which is saved, but a

Page 247 U. S. 384

common law remedy. . . . If the suit be in personam against an individual defendant, with an auxiliary attachment against a particular thing or against the property of the defendant in general, it is essentially a proceeding according to the course of the common law, and within the saving clause of the statute . . . of a common law remedy. The suit in this case being one in equity to enforce a common law remedy, the state courts were correct in assuming jurisdiction.'"

The distinction between rights and remedies is fundamental. A right is a well founded or acknowledged claim; a remedy is the means employed to enforce a right or redress an injury. Bouvier's Law Dictionary. Plainly, we think, under the saving clause, a right sanctioned by the maritime law may be enforced through any appropriate remedy recognized at common law; but we find nothing therein which reveals an intention to give the complaining party an election to determine whether the defendant's liability shall be measured by common law standards, rather than those of the maritime law. Under the circumstances here presented, without regard to the court where he might ask relief, petitioner's rights were those recognized by the law of the sea.

Section 20 of the Seamen's Act declares "seamen having command shall not be held to be fellow servants with those under their authority," and full effect must be given this whenever the relationship between such parties becomes important. But the maritime law imposes upon a shipowner liability to a member of the crew injured at sea by reason of another member's negligence without regard to their relationship; it was of no consequence, therefore, to petitioner whether or not the alleged negligent order came from a fellow servant; the statute is irrelevant. The language of the section discloses no intention to impose upon shipowners the same measure of liability for injuries suffered by the crew while at sea as the common

Page 247 U. S. 385

law prescribes for employers in respect of their employees on shore.

The judgment of the court below is


MR. JUSTICE HOLMES concurs in the result.


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