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GOETT v. UNION CARBIDE CORP. ET AL.

decided: January 18, 1960.

GOETT, ADMINISTRATRIX
v.
UNION CARBIDE CORP. ET AL.



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

Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker, Stewart

Author: Per Curiam

[ 361 U.S. Page 341]

 This was a libel in admiralty brought against respondent Union Carbide Corporation by petitioner, the administratrix of Marvin Paul Goett. Goett had been an employee of respondent Amherst Barge Company, which was engaged in repairing a river barge owned by Union. The decedent was working on the barge when he fell off into the waters of the Kanawha River, and, after fruitless efforts at rescue, was drowned. The theory of the libel was that, alternatively, Union was negligent in turning over the barge to Amherst without its being equipped with rescue equipment, or that the vessel was unseaworthy without such equipment; and that the lack of rescue equipment caused the decedent's death. The accident had taken place in West Virginia waters and that State's Wrongful Death Act was relied upon. The District Court found that the vessel was in fact unseaworthy and that Union was negligent in the respect charged, causing the death of decedent, and that the decedent was not shown to have been guilty of contributory negligence or to have assumed the risk. The District Court bottomed Union's liability on negligence, and awarded petitioner $20,000 in damages, the maximum allowable under the West Virginia Act, though finding that the actual damages were substantially higher. On Union's appeal to the Court of Appeals, the judgment was reversed. 256 F.2d 449.

The Court of Appeals held that, as a matter of law, Union owed no duty to the employees of Amherst once the vessel had been turned over to the latter. It accordingly

[ 361 U.S. Page 342]

     reversed the District Court's finding of negligence. It further held, contrary to the District Court, that the vessel was not unseaworthy at the time of the accident, and that in any event the decedent was not a person to whom the warranty of seaworthiness was owed. In the light of this determination, it did not pass on the question whether unseaworthiness would be in any event available as a ground for recovery in a West Virginia wrongful death action involving a maritime tort. We granted certiorari. 359 U.S. 923.

This case was decided in the lower courts before the decision of this Court in The Tungus v. Skovgaard, 358 U.S. 588, where it was held that it was a question of state law as to what is the proper substantive law to be applied to maritime torts within the territorial jurisdictions of the States in wrongful death cases. See Hess v. United States, ante, p. 314. Under this holding, in a maritime tort death case, the State might apply the substantive law generally applicable to wrongful death cases within its territory, or it might choose to incorporate the general maritime law's concepts of unseaworthiness or negligence.*fn1 Here the Court of Appeals did not decide which standard the West Virginia Act adopted. It did not articulate on what basis it was applying federal law if in fact it was; there is no intimation that it believed the West Virginia Act incorporated the maritime law's negligence standard, and in fact it expressly left open the question whether that Act incorporated the maritime standard of seaworthiness. It seems more likely to us to have passed on the negligence issue as a matter of federal maritime law; it cited only cases applying

[ 361 U.S. Page 343]

     the general maritime law's and the Jones Act's concepts of negligence, and general treatises; no West Virginia authority was relied upon.*fn2 The least that can be said is that it is highly doubtful*fn3 which law the Court of Appeals applied;*fn4 and so in the absence of any expression by it of which standard the West Virginia Act adopted, we do not believe we can permit its judgment to stand after our intervening decision in The Tungus.

Accordingly, so that the Court of Appeals, which is closer than we to matters of local law, may pass upon the questions of West Virginia law involved in the light of this Court's holding in The Tungus, we vacate its judgment and remand the cause to it to determine: (a) Whether the West Virginia Wrongful Death Act, as to this maritime tort, employs the West Virginia or the general maritime law concept of negligence; and, in the light of its determination, (b) whether the district judge's finding as to negligence is correct under the proper substantive law. To facilitate our discretionary review of

[ 361 U.S. Page 344]

     the Court of Appeals' findings as to unseaworthiness, it should also determine whether the West Virginia Act incorporates this standard of the general maritime law in death actions involving maritime torts. Cf. Barr v. Matteo, 355 U.S. 171.*fn5

Vacated and remanded.

Disposition

256 F.2d 449, judgment vacated and cause remanded.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, whom MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER ...


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