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Leathem Smith-Putnam Navigation Co. v. Osby

August 7, 1935


Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

Author: Lindley

Before EVANS and SPARKS, Circuit Judges, and LINDLEY, District Judge.

LINDLEY, District Judge.

Appellees, members of the crew of a motor vessel, Material Service, filed suits at law to recover, under the Jones Act, § 1, 46 USCA § 688, damages for injuries resulting from an explosion upon the boat, on November 30, 1930, about 10 a.m. while it was proceeding up the Illinois Drainage Canal. Appellant filed its petition for exemption from, and limitation of, liability, as owner of the vessel, and the court restrained the suits at law. Answers and claims for damages in behalf of each of the appellees and one Delia Embury, an invitee, were filed.The District Court found appellant liable to the members of the crew, but not as to the invitee. There was no appeal as to the latter finding.

The decree was based upon the Jones Act, § 1 (46 USCA § 688), which creates a remedy whereby damages at law resulting from negligence of the parties in charge of the ship may be recovered by any seaman. This remedy is governed by the statutes of the United States respecting liability for injuries to railway employees (45 USCA §§ 51-59), and the effect is to give to seamen the same cause of action at law for negligence as is given to railway employees. Contributory negligence is a matter of defense and merely mitigates the amount of damages. Defenses based upon the fellow-servant rule are abolished.

The answers of appellees charged that appellant permitted the vessel to become and remain defective in many particulars and to be unsafe, so tht explosive gases and fumes accumulated in dangerous quantities, and averred that, by reason of the said negligence, the gases exploded, causing the injuries sustained by appellees. There was no direct evidence as to the cause of the explosion, but certain facts and circumstances were received in evidence with respect thereto.

The explosion occurred in the steering gear room at the extreme aft on the main deck. The walls, doors, and bulkheads were from three-sixteenths to three-eights of an inch thick. In the room were the steering engine, mufflers, and two electric motors, one above the floor on the port side, another on the floor, amidships. Through the room, from top to bottom, ran the iron flue of the heating boiler. The door entering from the galley was cut in half, so as to afford ventilation. When it was open it swung into the galley against the refrigerator. In the room were two deadlights, round holes through the hull at the stern, one to port and one to starboard, each about a foot in diameter, located 5 or 5 1/2 feet above the deck, with glass covers capable of being opened. There were two hatches or openings in the quarter deck, provided with covers, which were usually left open. The room was lighted by two electric globes. Five irregular holes had been burned through the forward bulkheads with an acetylene gas torch, admitting five pipes into the galley.

Beyond this bulkhead amidships lay the officers' dining room, and on the starboard side the captain's cabin. Forward from the galley was the crew's mess, which was separated from the galley by a bulkhead, three-sixteenths inch thick, through which an opening had been cut to pass food from the galley to the mess. All the rooms mentioned, including pilot house, captain's cabin, and a tier of rooms on the starboard side, had for their floor the main deck and for their top, the quarter deck.

Under the main deck and beneath the steering gear room and various of the other rooms mentioned was a water ballast tank, known as the afterpeak tank. It was located farthest aft in the ship and separated from the further forward parts by a bulkhead immediately under the forward end of the officers' dining room. It wxtended thence aft to the stern, had a capacity of thirty tons and communicated directly with the officers' dining room by means of a manhole through the main deck. There were holes for bolts in the cover and corresponding holes through the deck, but no bolts were used prior to the explosion. It was impossible to adjust the cover so that at least some of the holes through the deck would not find a corresponding hole in the cover, and it was difficult to adjust it so that more than two holes were not open. The cover frequently slid off into the room. The captain's toilet soil pipe ran through the afterpeak tank and had its vent outside the hull. Various witnesses testified there were strong odors in the tank and in the steering gear room.

In the spring, before the explosion, odors from the tank were noticed in the dining room. An investigation disclosed a two-inch hole in the soil pipe, which was then plugged, and the tank washed out. The afterpeak tank communicated with the steering engine room, by two four-inch gooseneck vents and two three-quarter inch holes and directly with the interior of the refrigerator by means of the refrigerator defrosting one-inch drain pipe.

From the engine room the exhaust pipes ran from two Diesel engines aft above the water in the afterpeak tank and then up into the steering engine room, where they passed through mufflers and thence out into the open air. The fuel oil for the engines was kept in tanks located half way between bow and stern. The heating boiler was in the engine room. Its flue, an iron pipe eight inches in diameter, ran aft from the engine room, above the water of the afterpeak tank and turned up through the steering engine room floor through the latter room and thence through the quarter deck out into the open air.

The vessel left Lockport, laden with a cargo of gravel, bound for Chicago, on November 30, 1930 at about 4:50 a.m., and did not stop until the explosion occurred.

The evidence, though disputed, justified the finding of the court that the tank was filed with water at Bubbly creek. The water there is thoroughly permeated by sewage from the stockyards and contains putrifying animal matter; great bubbles of gas arise from the fermentation of the same at the bottom. It was said that the water was so thick that rats could run across it; that it clogged the sea cocks, and that it became necessary to use compressed air to clear them out.

The gas produced in this sewage is methane, which is odorless and explosive. The solid contents of the tank when full of such water was about thirty pounds. Each pound of solid gives off a maximum of six cubic feet of methane gas. The total amount of methane gas that could be produced from the sewage solids in the water, then, would be 180 cubic feet, which would pass through the steering gear room through the four-inch gooseneck vents. The air space of the steering gear room was 1,248 cubic feet. If the entire 180 cubuc feet of gas passed into the room there would be a mixture of 14.4 per cent. of methane and 85.6 per cent. of air. Five per cent. of methane gas would cause an explosion. There was testimony to the effect that methane gas disappears by oxidation, when it comes in touch with red-hot ...

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