United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots Association v. Halecki/Opinion of the Court

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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

358 U.S. 613

United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots Association  v.  Halecki

 Argued: Oct. 23, 1958. --- Decided: Feb 24, 1959

The administratrix of the estate of Walter J. Halecki brought this action against the owners of the pilot boat New Jersey to recover damages for Halecki's death, allegedly caused by inhalation of carbon tetrachloride fumes while working aboard that vessel. The action, based upon the New Jersey Wrongful Death Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1, was brought in the federal court by reason of diversity of citizenship. Under instructions that either unseaworthiness of the vessel or negligence would render the defendants liable and that contributory negligence on the part of the decedent would serve only to mitigate damages, a jury returned a verdict for the administratrix, upon which judgment was entered. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the New Jersey Wrongful Death Act incorporates liability for unseaworthiness, as developed by federal law, and adopts the admiralty rule of comparative negligence when death occurs as a result of tortious conduct upon the navigable waters of that State. 251 F.2d 708.

For the reasons stated in M/V Tungus v. Skovgaard, 358 U.S. 588, 79 S.Ct. 503, we hold that the Court of Appeals was correct in viewing its basic task as one of interpreting the law of New Jersey. For reasons also stated in Tungus, we accept in this case the Court of Appeals' determination of the effect which New Jersey law would accord to the decedent's contributory negligence. But even if the Wrongful Death Act of New Jersey be interpreted as importing the federal maritime law of unseaworthiness, the court was in error in holding that the circumstances of this case were such as to impose liability under that doctrine.

The essential facts are not in dispute. In September of 1951 the vessel was brought to Jersey City, New Jersey, for its annual overhaul at the shipyard of Rodermond Industries, Inc. One of the jobs to be done was the dismantling and overhaul of the ship's generators, requiring, among other things, that they be sprayed with carbon tetrachloride. Since Rodermond Industries was not equipped to do electrical work, this job was subcontracted to K. & S. Electrical Company, Halecki's employer.

The generators were in the ship's engine room, and both Halecki and his foreman, Donald Doidge, were aware of the necessity of taking special precautions in undertaking the job of spraying them with tetrachloride, a toxic compound. [1] They arranged to do the work on Saturday, a day chosen because, as Doidge testified, '(W)e know it has to be done when there is nobody else on board ship.'

Halecki and Doidge came aboard on the appointed day, equipped with gas masks. They found only a watchman, to whom they gave instructions not to permit anyone to enter the engine room. Before starting the job they rigged an air hose underneath the generators to blow the fumes away from the man spraying. A high-compression blower was placed so that it would exhaust foul air through one of the two open doorways. These pieces of equipment belonged to Rodermond Industries and had been brought aboard by Doidge and Halecki the previous day. Together with the engine room's regular ventilating system, the air hoses and blower were operated by electrical power supplied from the dock. Halecki did most of the spraying, working for 10- or 15-minute periods with intervening rests of equal length. The ventilating equipment was in operation, and Halecki wore a gas mask during the entire period that he worked. He became sick the next day and died two weeks later of carbon tetrachloride poisoning.

The eventful development of the doctrine of unseaworthiness in this Court is familiar history. Although of dubious ancestry, [2] the doctrine was born with The Osceola [3] and emerged full-blown 40 years later in Mahnich v. Southern S.S.C.o. [4] as an absolute and nondelegable duty which the owner of a vessel owes to the members of the crew who man her. The justification for this rigid standard was clearly stated in the Court's opinion in Mahnich:

'He (the seaman) is subject to the rigorous discipline of the sea, and all the conditions of his service constrain him to accept, without critical examination and without protest, working conditions and appliances as commanded by his superior officers.' 321 U.S. 96, at page 103, 64 S.Ct. 455, at page 459.

With the nature of the duty thus defined, it remained for two other decisions of the Court to amplify its scope. Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki and Pope & Talbot, Inc., v. Hawn [5] made clear that the shipowner could not escape liability for unseaworthiness by delegating to others work traditionally done by members of the crew. Whether their calling be labeled 'stevedore,' 'carpenter,' or something else, those who did the 'type of work' traditionally done by seamen, and were thus related to the ship in the same way as seamen 'who had been or who were about to go on a voyage,' were entitled to a seaworthy ship. See 346 U.S. at page 413, 74 S.Ct. at page 207.

Neither these decisions nor the policy that underlies them can justify extension of liability for unseaworthiness to the decedent in the present case. The work that he did was in no way 'the type of work' traditionally done by the ship's crew. It was work that could not even be performed upon a ship ready for sea, but only when the ship was 'dead' with its generators dismantled. Moreover, it was the work of a specialist, requiring special skill and special equipment-portable blowers, air hoses, gas masks, and tanks of carbon tetrachloride, all brought aboard the vessel for this special purpose, and none connected with a ship's seagoing operations. [6] Indeed, the work was so specialized that the repair yard engaged to overhaul the vessel was not itself equipped to perform it, but had to enlist the services of a subcontractor. A measure of how foreign was the decedent's work to that ordinarily performed by the ship's crew is that it could be performed only at a time when all the members of the crew were off the ship.

It avails nothing to say that the decedent was an 'electrican,' and that many modern ships carry electricians in their crew. Pope & Talbot, Inc., v. Hawn explicitly teaches that such labels in this domain are meaningless. See 346 U.S. at page 413, 74 S.Ct. at page 207. It is scarcely more helpful to indulge in the euphemism that the decedent was 'cleaning' part of the ship, and to say that it is a traditional duty of seamen to keep their ship clean. The basic fact is, in the apt words of Judge Lumbard's dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals, that the decedent 'was not doing what any crew member had ever done on this ship or anywhere else in the world so far as we are informed.' 251 F.2d 708, at page 715. To extend liability for unseaworthiness to the decedent here would distort the law of Mahnich, of Hawn and of Sieracki beyond recognition. We therefore hold that it was error to instruct the jury that the shipowner could be held liable in this case even if they should find that the shipowner had exercised reasonable care. [7]

As to the claim based upon negligence, for which the New Jersey Wrongful Death Act clearly gives a right of action, [8] we agree with the Court of Appeals that 'the evidence created an issue that could be decided only by a verdict.' The defendants owed a duty of exercising reasonable care for the safety of the decedent. They were charged with knowledge that carbon tetrachloride was to be used in the confined spaces of the engine room. It was for the triers of fact to determine whether the defendants were responsibly negligent in permitting or authorizing the method or manner of its use.

It follows from what has been said that a new trial will be required, for there is no way to know that the invalid claim of unseaworthiness was not the sole basis for the verdict.

Vacated and remanded.

For concurring opinion of Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER see 79 S.Ct. 523.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN, with whom The CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice BLACK, and Mr. Justice DOUGLAS join, dissenting.


^1  Carbon tetrachloride, a somewhat volatile compound five times heavier than air, is toxic to humans if present in the atmosphere in concentrations of more than 100 parts to 1,000,000. It therefore is essential when working with this chemical to provide adequate ventilation, a task that is complicated because the density of the compound may result in a high concentration of the fumes in the lower portions of an enclosed area.

^2  See Gilmore and Black, The Law of Admiralty, p. 316.

^3  189 U.S. 158, 175, 23 S.Ct. 483, 487, 47 L.Ed. 760.

^4  321 U.S. 96, 64 S.Ct. 455, 88 L.Ed. 561.

^5  328 U.S. 85, 66 S.Ct. 872, 90 L.Ed. 1099, and 346 U.S. 406, 74 S.Ct. 202, 98 L.Ed. 143. See also Alaska S.S.C.o. v. Petterson, 347 U.S. 396, 74 S.Ct. 601, 98 L.Ed. 798, and Rogers v. United States Lines, 347 U.S. 984, 74 S.Ct. 849, 98 L.Ed. 1120.

^6  It was established that the ship's own ventilating system was entirely adequate to perform its intended function of ventilating the engine room while the ship was in regular operation.

^7  We do not reach the question, discussed in the amicus curiae brief of the United States, whether a shipowner can ever be liable for the unseaworthiness of a vessel 'to a shore based worker who performs labor on a ship which is not ready for a voyage but is out of navigation and docked in a private shipyard for its annual overhaul and repair.'

^8  N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1; see M/V Tungus v. Skovgaard, supra.

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).