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GUTIERREZ v. WATERMAN STEAMSHIP CORP.

decided: May 13, 1963.

GUTIERREZ
v.
WATERMAN STEAMSHIP CORP.



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT.

Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Goldberg

Author: White

[ 373 U.S. Page 207]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, a longshoreman unloading the S. S. Hastings at Ponce, Puerto Rico, slipped on some loose beans spilled on the dock and suffered personal injuries. He subsequently filed a libel against the Hastings, claiming damages for injuries caused by the ship's unseaworthiness and by the negligence of its owner, the respondent corporation. The case was tried in admiralty before the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, and the court found the following facts relevant in the present posture of the case. 193 F.Supp. 894.

The cargo of beans was packed in broken and defective bags, some of which were being repaired by coopers aboard the ship during unloading. Beans spilled out of the bags during unloading, including some from one bag which broke open during unloading, and the scattering of beans about the surface of the pier created a dangerous condition for the longshoremen who had to work there. The shipowner knew or should have known that injury was likely to result to persons who would have to work around the beans spilled from the defective bags, and it was negligent in allowing cargo so poorly stowed or laden to be unloaded. Petitioner fell on the beans and injured himself, and such injuries were proximately caused by the respondent's negligence and the unseaworthiness of its cargo or cargo containers.

[ 373 U.S. Page 208]

     Although petitioner filed his libel over a year after the analogous Puerto Rican statute of limitations ran,*fn1 the court found that the delay was excusable and that no prejudice to respondent was occasioned by the delay, since it had access at all times to its and the stevedore's*fn2 records which contained the relevant facts and since all the potential witnesses were available and produced at trial. Accordingly, the trial court entered a money judgment of some $18,000 for petitioner.

Respondent appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which reversed with directions to dismiss the action. 301 F.2d 415. It held that respondent had not been negligent, as a matter of law, because it "had neither control of nor even a right to control" the pier. The court also stated that petitioner did not prove what particular beans he slipped on, and that the ones responsible for his fall might have come from a bag that "for all that appears" may have been dropped and broken open due to some third party's negligence. As for seaworthiness, the court held that the shipowner was not responsible for the lading, or cargo containers, stating: "The very fact that unseaworthiness obligations are 'awesome' . . . suggests that they should not be handled with prodigality. We are unwilling to recognize one here." Finally, it reversed the conclusion below as to laches, since the availability to respondent of the witnesses when the libel was filed was not as advantageous to it as would have been an opportunity to examine them at an earlier date. That this was prejudicial,

[ 373 U.S. Page 209]

     the court concluded, was shown by the fact that the witnesses' testimony was at variance with respondent's records of the ship's unloading. Petitioner sought certiorari from this adverse judgment and we brought the case here, 371 U.S. 810, to resolve the apparently troublesome question as to the shipowner's liability for his torts which have impacts on shore. We have concluded that the judgment of the Court of Appeals must be reversed with respect to each of the three headings involved.

I.

At the outset we are met with an issue which is said to be jurisdictional. Counsel for respondent candidly admits failure to raise the point below, but as is our practice we will consider this threshold question before reaching the merits. McGrath v. Kristensen, 340 U.S. 162, 167-168; Ford Motor Co. v. Treasury Dept., 323 U.S. 459, 467; Matson Nav. Co. v. United States, 284 U.S. 352, 359 (admiralty case); Grace v. American Ins. Co., 109 U.S. 278, 283; Hope Ins. Co. v. Boardman, 5 Cranch 57; see Wheeldin v. Wheeler, 371 U.S. 812; Brown Shoe Co. v. United States, 370 U.S. 294, 305-306.

Respondent contends that it is not liable, at least in admiralty, because the impact of its alleged lack of care or unseaworthiness was felt on the pier rather than aboard ship. Whatever validity this proposition may have had until 1948, the passage of the Extension of Admiralty Jurisdiction Act, 62 Stat. 496, 46 U. S. C. § 740, swept it away when it made vessels on navigable water liable for damage or injury "notwithstanding that such damage or injury be done or consummated on land." Respondent and the carrier amici curiae would have the statute limited to injuries actually caused by the physical agency of the vessel or a particular part of it -- such as when the ship rams a bridge or when its defective winch drops some

[ 373 U.S. Page 210]

     cargo onto a longshoreman. Cf. Strika v. Netherlands Ministry of Traffic, 185 F.2d 555 (C. A. 2d Cir.); Hagans v. Farrell Lines, 237 F.2d 477 (C. A. 3d Cir.). Nothing in the legislative history supports so restrictive an interpretation of the statutory language. There is no distinction in admiralty between torts committed by the ship itself and by the ship's personnel while operating it, any more than there is between torts "committed" by a corporation and by its employees. And ships are libeled as readily for an unduly bellicose mate's assault on a crewman, see Boudoin v. Lykes Bros. Co., 348 U.S. 336, 339-340; The Rolph, 299 F. 52 (C. A. 9th Cir.), or for having an incompetent crew or master, see Keen v. Overseas Tankship Corp., 194 F.2d 515, 517 (C. A. 2d Cir.), as for a collision. Various far-fetched hypotheticals are raised, such as a suit in admiralty for an ordinary automobile accident involving a ship's officer on ship business in port, or for someone's slipping on beans that continue to leak from these bags in a warehouse in Denver. We think it sufficient for the needs of this occasion to hold that the case is within the maritime jurisdiction under 46 U. S. C. § 740 when, as here, it is alleged that the shipowner commits a tort*fn3 while or before the ship is being unloaded, and the impact of which is felt ashore at a time and place not remote from the wrongful act.

II.

As indicated, supra, the trial court found respondent negligent in allowing the beans to be unloaded in their defective bagging, when it knew or should have known that injury was likely to result to persons having to work about the beans that might, and did, spill. ...


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