Miles v. Apex Marine Corporation

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United States Supreme Court

498 U.S. 19

Miles  v.  Apex Marine Corporation

No. 89-1158  Argued: Oct. 3, 1990. --- Decided: Nov 6, 1990


Petitioner Miles, the mother and administratrix of the estate of a seaman killed by a fellow crew member aboard the vessel of respondents (collectively Apex) docked in an American port, sued Apex in District Court, alleging negligence under the Jones Act for failure to prevent the assault, and breach of the warranty of seaworthiness under general maritime law for hiring a crew member unfit to serve. After the court ruled, inter alia, that the estate could not recover the son's lost future income, the jury found that the ship was seaworthy, but that Apex was negligent. Although it awarded damages on the negligence claim to Miles for the loss of her son's support and services and to the estate for pain and suffering, the jury found that Miles was not financially dependent on her son and was therefore not entitled to damages for loss of society. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of negligence by Apex. As to the general maritime claim, the court ruled that the vessel was unseaworthy as a matter of law, but held that a nondependent parent may not recover for loss of society in a general maritime wrongful death action and that general maritime law does not permit a survival action for decedent's lost future earnings.


1. There is a general maritime cause of action for the wrongful death of a seaman. The reasoning of Moragne v. States Marine Lines, Inc., 398 U.S. 375, 90 S.Ct. 1772, 26 L.Ed.2d 339, which created a general maritime wrongful death cause of action, extends to suits for the death of true seamen despite the fact that Moragne involved a longshoreman. Although true seamen, unlike longshoremen, are covered under the Jones Act provision creating a negligence cause of action against the seaman's employer for wrongful death, Moragne, supra, at 396, n. 12, 90 S.Ct., at 1785, n. 12, recognized that that provision is preclusive only of state remedies for death from unseaworthiness and does not pre-empt a general maritime wrongful death action. The Jones Act evinces no general hostility to recovery under maritime law, since it does not disturb seamen's general maritime claims for injuries resulting from unseaworthiness, and does not preclude the recovery for wrongful death due to unseaworthiness created by its companion statute, the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). Rather, the Jones Act establishes a uniform system of seamen's tort law. As the Court concluded in Moragne, supra, at 396, n. 12, 90 S.Ct., at 1785, n. 12, that case's extension of the DOHSA wrongful death action from the high seas to territorial waters furthers, rather than hinders, uniformity in the exercise of admiralty jurisdiction. There is also little question that Moragne intended to create a general maritime wrongful death action applicable beyond the situation of longshoremen, since it expressly overruled The Harrisburg, 119 U.S. 199, 7 S.Ct. 140, 30 L.Ed. 358, which held that maritime law did not afford a cause of action for the wrongful death of a seaman, and since each of the "anomalies" to which the Moragne cause of action was directed-particularly the fact that recovery was theretofore available for the wrongful death in territorial waters of a longshoreman, but not a true seaman-involved seamen. Pp. 30-33.

2. Damages recoverable in a general maritime cause of action for the wrongful death of a seaman do not include loss of society. This case is controlled by the logic of Mobil Oil Corp. v. Higginbotham, 436 U.S. 618, 625, 98 S.Ct. 2010, 2015, 56 L.Ed.2d 581, which held that recovery for nonpecuniary loss, such as loss of society, is foreclosed in a general maritime action for death on the high seas because DOHSA, by its terms, limits recoverable damages in suits for wrongful death on the high seas to "pecuniary loss sustained by the persons for whose benefit the suit is brought" (emphasis added). Sea-Land Services, Inc. v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573, 94 S.Ct. 806, 39 L.Ed.2d 9 which allowed recovery for loss of society in a general maritime wrongful death action, applies only in territorial waters and only to longshoremen. The Jones Act, which applies to deaths of true seamen as a result of negligence, allows recovery only for pecuniary loss and not for loss of society in a wrongful death action. See Michigan Central R. Co. v. Vreeland, 227 U.S. 59, 69-71, 33 S.Ct. 192, 195-196, 57 L.Ed. 417. The Jones Act also precludes recovery for loss of society in this case involving a general maritime claim for wrongful death resulting from unseaworthiness, since it would be inconsistent with this Court's place in the constitutional scheme to sanction more expansive remedies for the judicially created unseaworthiness cause of action, in which liability is without fault, than Congress has allowed in cases of death resulting from negligence. This holding restores a uniform rule applicable to all actions for the wrongful death of a seaman, whether under DOHSA, the Jones Act, or general maritime law. Pp. 30-33.

3. A general maritime survival action cannot include recovery for decedent's lost future earnings. Even if a seaman's personal cause of action survives his death under general maritime law, the income he would have earned but for his death is not recoverable because the Jones Act's survival provision limits recovery to losses suffered during the decedent's lifetime. See, e.g., Van Beeck v. Sabine Towing Co., 300 U.S. 342, 347, 57 S.Ct. 452, 454-455, 81 L.Ed. 685. Since Congress has limited the survival right for seamen's injuries resulting from negligence, this Court is not free, under its admiralty powers, to exceed those limits by creating more expansive remedies in a general maritime action founded on strict liability. Pp. 326-328.

882 F.2d 976, affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except SOUTER, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Allain F. Hardin, New Orleans, La., for petitioner; A. Remy Fransen, Jr., New Orleans, La., on brief.

Gerard T. Gelpi, New Orleans, La., for respondents; Randall C. Coleman, III, C. Gordon Starling, Jr., New Orleans, La., on brief; Graydon S. Staring, New Orleans, La., of counsel.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.


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).