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Douglas

United States Supreme Court

332 U.S. 155

Caldarola  v.  Eckert

 Argued: March 31, April 1, 1947. --- Decided: June 23, 1947


The S. S. Everagra is owned by the United States and managed in its behalf by the respondents as General Agents. (For the relevant portions of the contract and for full consideration of it in relation to issues other than those here involved, reference is made to Hust v. Moore-McCormack Lines, 328 U.S. 707, 66 S.Ct. 1218, 90 L.Ed. 1534.) On January 27, 1944, the Everagra, docked in the North River, New York City, was being unloaded by a stevedoring concern, the Jarka Company. Jarka did the unloading under a contract with the United States, negotiated through the War Shipping Administration. One of its provisions was that 'the Administrator shall furnish and maintain in good working order all' necessary equipment. Caldarola, the petitioner, was an employee of Jarka. In the course of his work on the vessel he was injured. He brought this action in the New York courts against the respodents, cla iming that his injury was caused by a defective boom and that they were liable for failing in their duty as Agents to maintain it in sound condition.

The New York Court of Appeals, affirming the Appellate Division in setting aside a verdict for the petitioner, 270 App.Div. 563, 61 N.Y.S.2d 164, held that under New York law the relation which the Agents bore to the vessel did not make them responsible to a third person for its condition. 295 N.Y. 463, 466, 68 N.E.2d 444. Because of claimed conflict in the decisions, particularly between this ruling and Hust v. Moore-McCormack Lines, 328 U.S. 707, 66 S.Ct. 1218, 90 L.Ed. 1534, we granted certiorari. 329 U.S. 704, 67 S.Ct. 195.

No doubt petitioner could have sued the United States in Admiralty. Section 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act, 41 Stat. 525, 46 U.S.C. § 742, 46 U.S.C.A. § 742. He chose not to do so. Presumably to obtain the benefit of trial by jury, he asked for relief from New York. There is no question that the injury of which Caldarola complains is a maritime tort. As such it is suable in the State courts by virtue of § 9 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which saves 'to suitors in all cases the right of a common-law remedy where the common law is competent to give it.' 1 Stat. 76-77, 28 U.S.C.A. § 371, subd. 3. Whether Congress thereby recognized that there were common law rights in the States as to matters also congnizable in admiralty, or whether it was concerning only with 'saving' to the States the power to use their courts to vindicate rights deriving from the maritime law to the extent that their common law remedies may be available, is a question on which the authorities do not speak with clarity. Compare Waring v. Clarke, 5 How. 441, 460, 461, 12 L.Ed. 226; Taylor v. Carryl, 20 How. 583, 598, 599, 15 L.Ed. 1028; 3 Story on the Constitution (1st ed.) 533, n. 3, with Schoonmaker v. Gilmore, 102 U.S. 118, 26 L.Ed. 95; The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398, 28 S.Ct. 133, 52 L.Ed. 264; Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S.C.o., 247 U.S. 372, 38 S.Ct. 501, 62 L.Ed. 1171; C. J. Hendry Co. v. Moore, 318 U.S. 133, 63 S.Ct. 499, 87 L.Ed. 663; Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 88, 89, 66 S.Ct. 872, 874, 90 L.Ed. 1099. In any event, whether New York is the source of the right or merely affords the means for enforcing it, her determination is decisive that there is no remedy in its courts for such a business invitee against one who has no control and possession of premises. Compare Douglas v. New York, New Haven & Hartford R. Co., 279 U.S. 377, 49 S.Ct. 355, 73 L.Ed. 747, and Testa v. Katt, 330 U.S. 386, 67 S.Ct. 810.

The New York Court of Appeals authoritatively determines who is liable, in New York, for such an occurrence as that of which Caldarola complainant. Insofar as the issues in this case exclusively concern New York law, that court had the final say in holding that one in the relation of the respondents to the petitioner is not liable for the tort of which the latter complains. But to the extent that the determination of tort liability in New York is entangled with the construction of the contract between the Agents and the United States, the interpretation of that contract is a matter of federal concern and is not concluded by the meaning which the State court may find in it.

We agree that if, on a fair reading of the contract, the control which the Agents had over the vessel is the kind of control which New York requires as a basis of liability to third persons, the New York courts cannot so read the contract as to deny the right which New York recognizes. It is not claimed that an injured party has rights under the agency contract, or that it created duties to third persons. Robins Dry Dock & Repair Co. v. Flint, 275 U.S. 303, 48 S.Ct. 134, 72 L.Ed. 290. And so the narrow question is whether the Agents were in possession and control of the Everagra. This is the crucial issue, because liability in tort by the Agents for Caldarola's injury would only arise in New York when there is such possessio and contr ol of premises on which injury occurs, due to negligence in their maintenance. Cullings v. Goetz, 256 N.Y. 287, 176 N.E. 397. The United States, as amicus curiae, submitted what we deem to be conclusive considerations against reading the contract so as to find the Agents to be owners pro hac vice in possession and control of the vessel. The consequences, to both the national and international interests of the United States, of such a construction would be too far-reaching to warrant such a forced reading merely in order to have a basis on which to build liability under the law of New York. Serious issues affecting the immunity of Government vessels in foreign ports as well as immunity from regulation and taxation by local governments would needlessly be raised. After all, the question is not whether petitioner may be compensated for his injury. Congress has made provision for that. Petitioner insists, in order to enable him to sue in the courts of New York, that the Agents are to be deemed, as a matter of federal law, owners of the vessel pro hac vice and, therefore, as a matter of State law, subject to the duties of such ownership under New York law toward business invitees. We reject this construction.

Our previous decisions do not require it. Hust v. Moore-McCormack Lines, supra, arose under the Jones Act. Act of March 4, 1915, 38 Stat. 1185, as amended, June 5, 1920, 41 Stat. 1007, 46 U.S.C.A. § 688. We there held that under the Agency contract the Agent was the 'employer' of an injured seaman as that term is used in the Jones Act, and a seaman could therefore bring the statutory action against such an 'employer.' The Court did not hold that the Agency contract made the Agent for all practical purposes the owner of the vessel. It did not hold that it imposed upon him, as a matter of federal law, duties of care to third persons, more particularly to a stevedore under employment of a concern unloading the vessel pursuant to a contract with the United States. Brady v. Roosevelt Steamship Co., 317 U.S. 575, 63 S.Ct. 425, 87 L.Ed. 471, is likewise remote from the issues decisive of this case. It merely held that the Suits in Admiralty Act, by furnishing an in personam remedy against the United States, did not free the Agent from liability for his own torts. The Brady case did not reach the 'different question' whether 'a cause of action' against the Agent had been established. 317 U.S. at page 585, 63 S.Ct. at page 430, 87 L.Ed. 471. That is the precise question here, and more particularly, whether the contract created a relationship from which, under New York law, liability as to business invitees followed.

Judgment affirmed.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK and Mr. Justice MURPHY concur, dissenting.

NotesEdit

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).