Warren v. United States/Dissent Frankfurter

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

340 U.S. 523

Warren  v.  United States

 Argued: Jan. 2, 1951. --- Decided: Feb 26, 1951

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, dissenting.

We brought this case here because it involved construction of the Shipowners' Liability Convention, 54 Stat. 1693. As to that, I agree with the Court that the Convention does not afford any basis for libellant's claim. Assuming that Article 2 of the Convention is self-executing, a matter which I do not now have to decide, the exceptions permitted by paragraph 2 of that Article are operative by virtue of the general maritime law. But I am unable to agree that we should reverse the Court of Appeals on its application of the proper standard to the facts.

The District Judge gave this description of what happened:

'Libellant was a messman aboard the S. S. 'Anna Howard Shaw.' On October 30, 1944, while the vessel was in the Bay of Naples, Italy, libellant left on shore leave. In company with the ship's carpenter and another messman, he went sightseeing. They came to the waterfront town of Bagnoli (referred to by libellant as Magnolia). The group stopped at various stores and at one such place they bought a small bottle of wine which they divided among them. About three miles down the shore from where they had landed from a motor lifeboat, they stopped at a dance hall and stayed an hour and a half or so. Libellant says he was dancing most of the time, and drank only one additional glass of wine.

'After a time libellant entered another room and approached a large window over-looking the sea, and he says the sight of the waves breaking upon the rocks some thirty-five feet below intrigued him. The French doors of this window extended to the level of the floor and he observed a sort of wholly unprotected ledge or balcony, which extended out from the building some two and a half or three feet. There was no railing of any sort and the slightest misstep or unsteadiness was almost sure to precipitate libellant. In any event, it was a perilous undertaking to go out upon this balcony and one even more perilous to lean over the edge to get a better view of the rocks and waves immediately below. But this is what libellant did. When he came to a position where the toes of his shoes were six inches from the edge, he leaned over, at the same time taking hold of a rod about one-half inch in circumference, which was apparently affixed to the building to his right. He merely took a casual glance at this rod and makes no claim to have done more. It looked like a 'lightning arrester or something of that type.' Whether the fastenings such as they were had been weakened by bombs and shell fire, which had otherwise marked the buildings in the vicinity to some extent, does not appear. Nor does the testimony disclose the purpose which this rod served. As he grasped it, and leaned over the edge, the rod came off and libellant lost his balance and fell. A similar ledge or balcony on one of the windows below broke his fall or he would have sustained injuries far more serious than a broken leg. This fall and its consequences are the basis for his suit for maintenance and cure.' D.C., 75 F.Supp. 210, 213.

The District Judge concluded that libellant had not acted 'in reckless disregard of safety'. 75 F.Supp. at page 216. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously reversed. It thought that 'In the case at bar, the risk of serious injury or even death if the seaman should fall over the cliff, was obvious; and the requisite degree of care correspondingly higher. In the face of evident danger, the care which Warren took was very slight-a mere casual glance at the rod which he thought to ba a 'lightning arrester or something of that type.' We think that a man who acts as he did under circumstances of danger does not show even a minimal degree of regard for the consequences of his act. Unless his ship is to be an insurer of his safety, he cannot recover against her.' 179 F.2d 919, 922.

I do not think the judgment of the Court of Appeals that the libellant's conduct was a 'deliberate act of indiscretion', Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co., 318 U.S. 724, 731, 63 S.Ct. 930, 934, 87 L.Ed. 1107, should be disturbed.


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).