Admiralty and Federalism.

Extension of admiralty and mari- time jurisdiction to navigable waters within a state does not, however, of its own force include general or political powers of government. Thus, in the absence of legislation by Congress, the states through their courts may punish offenses upon their navigable waters and upon the sea within one marine league of the shore.953

Determination of the boundaries of admiralty jurisdiction is a judicial function, and “no State law can enlarge it, nor can an act of Congress or a rule of court make it broader than the judicial power may determine to be its true limits.”954 But, as with other jurisdictions of the federal courts, admiralty jurisdiction can only be exercised under acts of Congress vesting it in federal courts.955

The boundaries of federal and state competence, both legislative and judicial, in this area remain imprecise, and federal judicial determinations have notably failed to supply definiteness. During the last century, the Supreme Court generally permitted two overlapping systems of law to coexist in an uneasy relationship. The federal courts in admiralty applied the general maritime law,956 supplemented in some instances by state law which created and defined certain causes of action.957 Because the Judiciary Act of 1789 saved to suitors common-law remedies, persons suing in state courts or in federal courts in diversity of citizenship actions could look to common-law and statutory doctrines for relief in maritime-related cases in which the actions were noticeable.958 In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen,959 a sharply divided Court held that New York could not constitutionally apply its workmen’s compensation system to employees injured or killed on navigable waters. For the Court, Justice McReynolds reasoned “that the general maritime law, as accepted by the federal courts, constituted part of our national law, applicable to matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction.”960 Recognizing that “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to define with exactness just how far the general maritime law may be changed, modified or affected by state legislation,” still it was certain that “no such legislation is valid if it works material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, or interferes with the proper harmony or uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations.”961 The “savings to suitors” clause was unavailing because the workmen’s compensation statute created a remedy “of a character wholly unknown to the common law, incapable of enforcement by the ordinary processes of any court and is not saved to suitors from the grant of exclusive jurisdiction.”962

Congress required three opportunities to legislate to meet the problem created by the decision, the lack of remedy for maritime workers to recover for injuries resulting from the negligence of their employers. First, Congress enacted a statute saving to claimants their rights and remedies under state workmen’s compensation laws.963 The Court invalidated it as an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the states. “The Constitution itself adopted and established, as part of the laws of the United States, approved rules of the general maritime law and empowered Congress to legislate in respect of them and other matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Moreover, it took from the states all power, by legislation or judicial decision, to contravene the essential purposes of, or to work material injury to, characteristic features of such law or to interfere with its proper harmony and uniformity in its international and interstate relations.”964 Second, Congress reenacted the law but excluded masters and crew members of vessels from those who might claim compensation for maritime injuries.965

The Court found this effort unconstitutional as well, because “the manifest purpose [of the statute] was to permit any State to alter the maritime law and thereby introduce conflicting requirements.”966 Finally, in 1927, Congress passed the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which provided accident compensation for injuries, including those resulting in death, sustained on navigable waters by employees, other than members of the crew, whenever “recovery . . . may not validly be provided by State law.”967

With certain exceptions,968 the federal-state conflict since Jensen has taken place with regard to three areas: (1) the interpretation of federal and state bases of relief for injuries and death as affected by the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act; (2) the interpretation of federal and state bases of relief for personal injuries by maritime workers as affected by the Jones Act; and (3) the application of state law to permit recovery in maritime wrongful death cases in which until recently there was no federal maritime right to recover.969

(1) The principal difficulty here was that after Jensen the Supreme Court did not maintain the line between permissible and impermissible state-authorized recovery at the water’s edge, but created a “maritime but local” exception, by which some injuries incurred in or on navigable waters could be compensated under state workmen’s compensation laws or state negligence laws.970 “The application of the State Workmen’s Compensation Acts has been sustained where the work of the employee has been deemed to have no direct relation to navigation or commerce and the operation of the local law ‘would work no material prejudice to the essential features of the general maritime law.’ ”971 Because Congress provided in the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act for recovery under the Act “if recovery . . . may not validly be provided by State law,”972 it was held that the “maritime but local” exception had been statutorily perpetuated,973 thus creating the danger for injured workers or their survivors that they might choose to seek relief by the wrong avenue to their prejudice. This danger was subsequently removed by the Court when it recognized that there was a “twilight zone,” a “shadowy area,” in which recovery under either the federal law or a state law could be justified, and held that in such a “twilight zone” the injured party should be enabled to recover under either.974 Then, in Calbeck v. Travelers Ins. Co.,975 the Court virtually read out of the Act its inapplicability when compensation would be afforded by state law and held that Congress’s intent in enacting the statute was to extend coverage to all workers who sustain injuries while on navigable waters of the United States whether or not a particular injury was also within the constitutional reach of a state workmen’s compensation law or other law. By the 1972 amendments to the LHWCA, Congress extended the law shoreward by refining the tests of “employee” and “navigable waters,” so as to reach piers, wharfs, and the like in certain circumstances.976

(2) The passage of the Jones Act977 gave seamen a statutory right of recovery for negligently inflicted injuries on which they could sue in state or federal courts. Because injured parties could obtain a jury trial in Jones Act suits, there was little attempted recourse under the savings clause978 to state law claims and thus no need to explore the line between applicable and inapplicable state law. But in the 1940s personal injury actions based on unseaworthiness979 were given new life by Court decisions for seamen;980 and the right was soon extended to longshoremen who were injured while on board ship or while working on the dock if the injury could be attributed either to the ship’s gear or its cargo.981 While these actions could have been brought in state court, federal law supplanted state law even with regard to injuries sustained in state territorial waters.982 The 1972 LHWCA amendments, however, eliminated unseaworthiness recoveries by persons covered by the Act and substituted a recovery under the LHWCA itself for injuries caused by negligence.983

(3) In The Harrisburg,984 the Court held that maritime law did not afford an action for wrongful death, a position to which the Court adhered until 1970.985 The Jones Act,986 the Death on the High Seas Act,987 and the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act988 created causes of action for wrongful death, but for cases not falling within one of these laws the federal courts looked to state wrongful death and survival statutes.989 Thus, in The Tungus v. Skovgaard,990 the Court held that a state wrongful death statute encompassed claims both for negligence and unseaworthiness in the instance of a land-based worker killed when on board ship in navigable water; the Court divided five-to-four, however, in holding that the standards of the duties to furnish a seaworthy vessel and to use due care were created by the state law as well and not furnished by general maritime concepts.991 And, in Hess v. United States,992 a suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act for recovery for a death by drowning in a navigable Oregon river of an employee of a contractor engaged in repairing the federally owned Bonneville Dam, a divided Court held that liability was to be measured by the standard of care expressed in state law, notwithstanding that the standard was higher than that required by maritime law. One area existed, however, in which beneficiaries of a deceased seaman were denied recovery.

The Jones Act provided a remedy for wrongful death resulting from negligence, but not for one caused by unseaworthiness alone; in Gillespie v. United States Steel Corp.,993 the Court held that the survivors of a seaman drowned while working on a ship docked in an Ohio port could not recover under the state wrongful death statute even though the act recognized unseaworthiness as a basis for recovery, the Jones Act having superseded state laws.

Thus did matters stand until 1970, when the Court, in a unanimous opinion in Moragne v. States Marine Lines,994 overruled its earlier cases and held that a right of recovery for wrongful death is sanctioned by general maritime law and that no statute is needed to bring the right into being. The Court was careful to note that the cause of action created in Moragne would not, like the state wrongful death statutes in Gillespie, be held precluded by the Jones Act, so that the survivor of a seaman killed in navigable waters within a state would have a cause of action for negligence under the Jones Act or for unseaworthiness under the general maritime law.



United States v. Bevans, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 336 (1818); Manchester v. Massachusetts, 139 U.S. 240 (1891). back
The Steamer St. Lawrence, 66 U.S. (1 Bl.) 522, 527 (1862). back
Janney v. Columbia Ins. Co., 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 411, 418 (1825); The Lottawanna, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 558, 576 (1875). back
E.g., New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants’ Bank of Boston, 47 U.S. (6 How.) 344 (1848); The Steamboat New York v. Rea, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 223 (1856); The China, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 53 (1868); Ex parte McNiel, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 236 (1872); La Bourgogne, 210 U.S. 95 (1908). back
The General Smith, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 438 (1819); The Lottawanna, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 558 (1875) (enforcing state laws giving suppliers and repairmen liens on ships supplied and repaired). Another example concerns state-created wrongful death actions. The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398 (1907). back
E.g., Hazard’s Administrator v. New England Marine Ins. Co., 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 557 (1834); The Belfast, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 624 (1869); American Steamboat Co. v. Chase, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 522 (1872); Quebec Steamship Co. v. Merchant, 133 U.S. 375 (1890); Belden v. Chase, 150 U.S. 674 (1893); Homer Ramsdell Transp. Co. v. La Compagnie Gen. Transatlantique, 182 U.S. 406 (1901). back
244 U.S. 205 (1917). The worker here had been killed, but the same result was reached in a case of nonfatal injury. Clyde S.S. Co. v. Walker, 244 U.S. 255 (1917). In Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., 247 U.S. 372 (1918), the Jensen holding was applied to preclude recovery in a negligence action against the injured party’s employer under state law. Under The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158 (1903), the employee had a maritime right to wages, maintenance, and cure. back
Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 215 (1917). back
244 U.S. at 216. back
244 U.S. at 218. There were four dissenters: Justices Holmes, Pitney, Brandeis, and Clarke. The Jensen dissent featured such Holmesian epigrams as: “[J]udges do and must legislate, but they can do so only interstitially; they are confined from molar to molecular motions,” id. at 221, and the famous statement supporting the assertion that supplementation of maritime law had to come from state law because “[t]he common law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky but the articulate voice of some sovereign or quasi-sovereign that can be identified. . . . It always is the law of some State. . . .” Id. at 222. back
40 Stat. 395 (1917). back
Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149, 160 (1920). The decision was again 5-to-4 with the same dissenters. back
42 Stat. 634 (1922). back
Washington v. Dawson & Co., 264 U.S. 219, 228 (1924). Holmes and Brandeis remained of the four dissenters and again dissented. back
44 Stat. 1424 (1927), as amended, 33 U.S.C. §§ 901950. In 1984, the statute was renamed the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. Pub. L. 98–426. back
E.g., Maryland Casualty Co. v. Cushing, 347 U.S. 409 (1954) (state direct action statute applies against insurers implicated in a marine accident); Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 348 U.S. 310 (1955) (state statute determines effect of breach of warranty in marine insurance contract); Southwestern Sugar & Molasses Co. v. River Terminals Corp., 360 U.S. 411 (1959); Bisso v. Inland Waterways Corp., 349 U.S. 85 (1955) (federal rather than state law determines effect of exculpatory provisions in towage contracts); Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731 (1961) (state statute of frauds inapplicable to oral contract for medical care between seaman and employer). back
Jensen, though much criticized, is still the touchstone of the decisional process in this area with its emphasis on the general maritime law. E.g., Pope & Talbot v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406 (1953); Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625 (1959). In Askew v. American Waterways Operators, 411 U.S. 325, 337–44 (1973), the Court, in holding that the states may constitutionally exercise their police powers respecting maritime activities concurrently with the Federal Government, such as by providing for liability for oil spill damages, noted that Jensen and its progeny, although still possessing vitality, have been confined to their facts; thus, it is only with regard “to suits relating to the relationship of vessels, plying the high seas and our navigable waters, and to their crews” that state law is proscribed. Id. at 344. See also Sun Ship v. Pennsylvania, 447 U.S. 715 (1980). back
Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233 (1921); Grant-Smith-Porter Ship Co. v. Rohde, 257 U.S. 469 (1922); State Industrial Comm’n v. Nordenholt Corp., 259 U.S. 263 (1922); Miller’s Indemnity Underwriters v. Braud, 270 U.S. 59 (1926). The exception continued to be applied following enactment of the Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. See cases cited in Davis v. Department of Labor and Industries, 317 U.S. 249, 253–254 (1942). back
Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 39 n.3 (1932). The internal quotation is from Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233, 242 (1921). back
§ 3(a), 44 Stat. 1424 (1927), 33 U.S.C. § 903(a). back
Crowell v. Benson, 284 U.S. 22, 39, (1932); Davis v. Department of Labor and Industries, 317 U.S. 249, 252–53 (1942). back
Davis v. Dept of Labor and Industries, 317 U.S. 249 (1942). The quoted phrases appear at id. at 253, 256. See also Hahn v. Ross Island Sand & Gravel Co., 358 U.S. 272 (1959). back
370 U.S. 114 (1962). In the 1972 amendments, § 2, 86 Stat. 1251, amending 33 U.S.C. § 903(a), Congress ratified Calbeck by striking out “if recovery . . . may not validly be provided by State law.” back
86 Stat. 1251, § 2, amending 33 U.S.C. § 902. The Court had narrowly turned back an effort to achieve this result through construction in Nacirema Operating Co. v. Johnson, 396 U.S. 212 (1969). See also Victory Carriers v. Law, 404 U.S. 202 (1971). On the interpretation of the amendments, see Northeast Marine Terminal Co. v. Caputo, 432 U.S. 249 (1977); Director, Office of Workers Compensation Programs v. Perini, 459 U.S. 297 (1983). back
41 Stat. 1007 (1920), 46 U.S.C. § 688. For the prior-Jones Act law, see The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158 (1903). back
“Cases of Admiralty and Maritime Jurisdiction,” supra. back
Unseaworthiness “is essentially a species of liability without fault, analogous to other well known instances in our law. Derived from and shaped to meet the hazards which performing the service imposes, the liability is neither limited by conceptions of negligence nor contractual in character. . . . [T]he owner’s duty to furnish a seaworthy ship is absolute and completely independent of his duty under the Jones Act to exercise reasonable care.” Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, 362 U.S. 539, 549 (1960). back
Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., 321 U.S. 96 (1944). See also Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, 362 U.S. 539 (1960); Michalic v. Cleveland Tankers, 364 U.S. 325 (1960); Waldron v. Moore-McCormack Lines, 386 U.S. 724 (1967). back
Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85 (1946); Pope & Talbot v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406 (1953); Alaska S.S. Co. v. Patterson, 347 U.S. 396 (1954); Gutierrez v. Waterman S.S. Corp., 373 U.S. 206 (1963); But see Usner v. Luckenback Overseas Corp., 400 U.S. 494 (1971); Victory Carriers v. Law, 404 U.S. 202 (1971). back
Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239 (1942); McAllister v. Magnolia Petroleum Co., 357 U.S. 221 (1958); Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625 (1959). back
86 Stat. 1263, § 18, amending 33 U.S.C. § 905. On the negligence standards under the amendment, see Scindia Steam Navigation Co., v. De Los Santos, 451 U.S. 156 (1981). back
119 U.S. 199 (1886). Subsequent cases are collected in Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970). back
Moragne v. States Marine Lines, 398 U.S. 375 (1970). back
41 Stat. 1007 (1920). 46 U.S.C. § 688. Recovery could be had if death resulted from injuries because of negligence but not from unseaworthiness. back
41 Stat. 537 (1920), 46 U.S.C. §§ 761 et seq. The Act applies to deaths caused by negligence occurring on the high seas beyond a marine league from the shore of any state. In Rodrique v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 395 U.S. 352 (1969), a unanimous Court held that this Act did not apply in cases of deaths on the artificial islands created on the continental shelf for oil drilling purposes but that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, 67 Stat. 462 (1953), 43 U.S.C. §§ 1331 et seq., incorporated the laws of the adjacent state, so that Louisiana law governed. See also Chevron Oil Co. v. Huson, 404 U.S. 97 (1971); Gulf Offshore Co. v. Mobil Oil Corp., 453 U.S. 473 (1981). However, in Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire, 477 U.S. 207 (1986), the Court held that the Act is the exclusive wrongful death remedy in the case of OCS platform workers killed in a helicopter crash 35 miles off shore en route to shore from a platform. back
44 Stat. 1424 (1927), as amended, 33 U.S.C. §§ 901950. back
Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233 (1921); Just v. Chambers, 312 U.S. 383 (1941); Levinson v. Deupree, 345 U.S. 648 (1953). back
358 U.S. 588 (1959). back
Justice Brennan, joined by Chief Justice Warren and Justices Black and Douglas, argued that the extent of the duties owed the decedent while on board ship should be governed by federal maritime law, though the cause of action originated in a state statute, just as would have been the result had decedent survived his injuries. See also United N.Y. & N.J. Sandy Hooks Pilot Ass’n v. Halecki, 358 U.S. 613 (1959). back
361 U.S. 314 (1960). The four Tungus dissenters joined two of the Tungus majority solely “under compulsion” of the Tungus ruling; the other three majority Justices dissented on the ground that application of the state statute unacceptably disrupted the uniformity of maritime law. back
379 U.S. 148 (1964). The decision was based on dictum in Lindgren v. United States, 281 U.S. 38 (1930), to the effect that the Jones Act remedy was exclusive. back
398 U.S. 375 (1970). back
398 U.S. at 396 n.12. For development of the law under Moragne, see Sea-Land Services v. Gaudet, 414 U.S. 573 (1974); Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19 (1990); and Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. v. Garris, 532 U.S. 811 (2001) (maritime cause of action for death caused by violation of the duty of seaworthiness is equally applicable to death resulting from negligence). But, in Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199 (1996), a case involving a death in territorial waters from a jet ski accident, the Court held that Moragne does not provide the exclusive remedy in cases involving the death in territorial waters of a “nonseafarer”—a person who is neither a seaman covered by the Jones Act nor a longshore worker covered by the LHWCA. back