American Stevedores v. Porello/Dissent Frankfurter

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion
Frankfurter

United States Supreme Court

330 U.S. 446

AMERICAN STEVEDORES  v.  PORELLO

 Argued: Dec. 11, 12, 1946. --- Decided: March 10, 1947


Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, with whom The CHIEF JUSTICE concurs, dissenting.

Without disregarding the significance which we have heretofore attached to legislative history, I cannot give the Public Vessels Act [1] the scope given it by the Court.

It can hardly be maintained that, in the setting of legal history, the phrase 'damages caused by a public vessel' must cover personal injuries due to failure to provide proper working conditions for a longshoreman. The problem for construction is not whether the term 'damages' may be applied to money compensation for hurt to person or property. What is to be construed is 'damages caused by a public vessel'. Standing by itself, that phrase, spontaneously read, may well mean damage inflicted by a public vessel rather than 'damages' incurred in connection with its operation. All we held in Canadian Aviator, Ltd. v. United States, 324 U.S. 215, 65 S.Ct. 639, 89 .l.Ed. 901, was that its personnel was part of the public vessel for purposes of 'causing' damage to another vessel.

The words do not stand alone. They are illuminated by the legislative history of the Public Vessels Act. This history has been so accurately summarized in the Government's brief that we shall avail ourselves of it:

'On May 29, 1924, Mr. Underhill introduced H.R. 9535, 68th Cong., 1st Sess., which became the Public Vessels Act without change so far as the present provision is concerned. At that time, there were already pending two other bills, H.R. 6989 and H.R. 9075, both of which would also have authorized suit in case of damage by a public vessel. H.R. 6989, likewise introduced by Mr. Underhill, was the successor of a series of bills introduced at each session of Congress since 1920. It provided for suit 'for damages caused by collision by a public vessel,' and had the approval of all interested Government departments. H.R. 9075, a new measure, was designed to revise the Suits in Admiralty Act and, at the same time, remove its existing limitation to only such vessels as are operated by the Government as merchant vessels. It would have resulted in making the United States liable for personal injuries by all public vessels exactly as it was already for those by its merchant vessels. H.R. 9075 had the powerful support of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and of Judge Hough, then the country's outstanding admiralty judge. It did not have the unqualified approval of the interested departments, which were insisting on important changes.

'The omission of H.R. 6989 and its predecessors to cover personal injuries had been the subject of criticisms, some of which are cited in the brief of respondent Porello. But protracted delays were apparent if an attempt were made to rewrite H.R. 9075 so as to meet the objections thereto. Instead of proceeding further with either H.R. 6989 or H.R. 9075, Mr. Underhill, for the Committee, introduced H.R. 9535, which, in place of limiting its grant of jurisdiction to suits 'for damages caused by collision by a public vessel,' covered all suits 'for damages caused by a public vessel.' The purpose, of this change is nowhere discussed. Mr. Underhill, in explaining the intent of the proposed legislation, stated, however (66 Cong.Rec. 2087): 'The bill I have introduced simply allows suits in admiralty to be brought by owners of vessels whose property has been damaged by collision or other fault of Government vessels and Government agents.' Never at any time in the course of the debates in the House or Senate was it expressly stated that the bill extended to suits for personal injuries. Many statements in the course of the debates, some of which are cited in petitioner's brief, seem to indicate that only relief for property damage was intended. We accordingly submit that, if decisive weight is to be given to the legislative history, it would appear that the Public Vessels Act was not intended to cover suits for personal injury.'

In scores of cases in recent years this Court has give 'decisive weight' to legislative history. It has done so even when the mere words of an enactment carried a clear meaning. An impressive course of decisions enjoins upon us not to disregard the legislative history of the Public Vessels Act unless it is so completely at war with the terms of the statute itself that we must deny one or the other. We can find such a conflict only by reading the Act itself with dogmatic inhospitality to the usual illuminations from without.

We cannot escape the conclusion that there was no jurisdiction for this libel in the District Court. [2]

Notes[edit]

^1  43 Stat. 1112, 46 U.S.C. § 781, 46 U.S.C.A. § 781: 'That 'a libel in personam in admiralty may be brought against the United States, or a petition impleading the United States, for damages caused by a public vessel of the United States, and for compensation for towage and salvage services, including contract salvage, rendered to a public vessel of the United States: Provided, That the cause of action arose after the 6th day of April, 1920.'

^2  This conclusion is reinforced by the Report of the Senate Committee that 'The chief purpose of this bill is to grant private owners of vessels and of merchandise a right of action when their vessels or goods have been damaged as the result of a collision with any Government-owned vessel'. S.Rep.No.941, 68th Cong., 2d Sess., p. 1. The Court's opinion finds overriding significance in a letter by the Attorney General commenting on the Bill, in which he stated that it 'intends to give the same relief against the Government for damages caused * * * by its public vessels' as was given by the Suits in Admiralty Act. That Act did afford the right to sue for personal injuries. To prefer the Attorney General's view to that expressed by those in charge of a measure would in itself be not the normal choice. And this letter of the Attorney General antedated the Report of the Committee and the statement of Representative Underhill. Compare United States v. Durkee Famous Foods, 306 U.S. 68, 71, 59 S.Ct. 456, 457, 458, 83 L.Ed. 492, where the Committee Report 'stated that the purpose of the bill was set out in a letter from the Attorney General which it quoted.' To reject the subsequent authoritative statements of the Congressional proponents of the legislation and to accept the view of the Attorney General to which the Government now does not even refer, is to discard in favor of dim remote light what heretofore has been deemed controlling illumination.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).