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Petition of H. Leslie Atlass for Exoneration From or Limitation of Liability v. Atlass

June 30, 1965


Kiley, Swygert and Major, Circuit Judges.

Author: Major

MAJOR, Circuit Judge.

This proceeding in Admiralty was initiated by H. Leslie Atlass as the owner of the yacht "Sis," under the Limitation of Liability Act (46 U.S.C.A. §§ 183-189) and Rules 51-54 of the Rules of Practice in Admiralty and Maritime Cases, for exoneration from or, in the alternative, limitation of liability under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C.A. § 688), for the death by drowning of two seamen, Clem Muth and Kurt Darr. Their representatives appeared as claimants and answered the petition. Subsequently, petitioner died and the executors of his estate were substituted as parties. (In this opinion we shall use the term "petitioner" rather than the names of his substituted parties.)

The District Court, after a lengthy trial without a jury, made extensive findings of fact and entered its conclusions of law. It concluded among other things that Atlass as an employer was liable for the deaths of the two seaman-employees which allegedly were proximately caused by the employer's failure to provide a safe means of ingress to and egress from the vessel. The Court also concluded that Muth and Darr were in part responsible for their deaths by reason of their own negligence. The Court, therefore, in summary held that petitioner was not entitled to exoneration but to a limitation of liability. In other words, it concluded there was negligence on the part of Atlass and contributory negligence on the part of Muth and Darr. Based on these conclusions an award of damages was made to the representative of each of claimants' estates.

From the Court's conclusion, embodied in its judgment, that petitioner was entitled to a limitation of liability, claimants appeal. From its conclusion, also embodied in its judgment, denying exoneration to petitioner, the latter cross-appeals.

While perhaps evident, we think it pertinent to note that if petitioner was entitled to exoneration, the issue as to limitation of liability is of no consequence. As the Court stated in The 84-H, 296 F. 427, 431 (C.A. 2):

"The whole doctrine of limitations of liability presupposes that a liability exists which is to be limited. If no liability exists there is nothing to limit. And in a proceeding to limit liability two duties are imposed upon the court. The first is to ascertain whether any liability exists. If it is found to exist the second duty arises, which is to ascertain whether the loss or damage was occasioned or incurred without the 'privity or knowledge' of the owner of the ship. If no liability is found to exist, the absence of all liability is to be decreed, and there the matter ends."

To the same effect see Rautbord v. Ehmann, 190 F.2d 533, 537 (C.A. 7).

It appears appropriate in the beginning to make a brief summary of the pleadings. The petition among other things alleged that petitioner was the owner of a certain vessel of the United States known as the yacht "Sis," of the registered dimensions of 101.5 feet in length, 19.2 feet in breadth and 11.1 feet in depth, and of 131 gross and 89 net registered tonnage, with home port at Chicago, Illinois, and that at about 3 a.m. on October 26, 1956, while the "Sis" was within the Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction of the United States, upon a certain drydock in the harbor at Detroit, Michigan, Clem Muth and Kurt Darr dropped or jumped into open water in a gap between the shipyard dock and the drydock, and drowned, while apparently returning to the yacht after spending the evening and early morning ashore.

The petition alleged that petitioner at all times exercised due diligence to make the vessel seaworthy and in all respects fit for the uses and purposes for which she was used; that the deaths of the said Muth and Darr were in nowise caused by the fault of the "Sis" or the persons in charge of her, or of petitioner or any other person for whose fault or neglect petitioner might be responsible, but was the direct and immediate result of the fault of Muth and Darr, or the result of inevitable accident. The petition further alleged that Catherine Eleanor Muth as administratrix of the estate of Clem Muth had brought an action in the District Court against petitioner, claiming damages under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C.A. § 688) in the amount of $250,000.00, and that petitioner had reason to believe that the personal representative of Kurt Darr, deceased, would commence an action against petitioner arising out of the same casualty.

The representatives of Muth and Darr (claimants) answered the petition, denying its material allegations. Muth's answer alleged that the death of Clem Muth was the immediate and proximate result of the negligence and careless acts of petitioner, his agents, servants, workmen and employees, occasioned and incurred with the fault, privity and knowledge of petitioner in carelessly permitting certain unsafe and dangerous conditions to prevail, in failing to provide safe and proper equipment on said vessel and in failing to take reasonable precautions to provide safe working conditions. Among the acts of negligence alleged were that petitioner "Negligently failed to provide a reasonably safe place to work, a safe means of ingress to and egress from the vessel, a gangplank or other safe means of leaving or boarding the vessel, adequate and proper illumination or light in the boarding area." (Other acts alleged appear to be embodied in those stated.)

Darr's answer was substantially the same as that of Muth, alleging that his death was caused by the negligence of petitioner, his agents and servants.

We shall first make an abbreviated statement of the facts as found by the District Court. On October 18, 1956, the yacht "Sis" left Belmont Harbor in Chicago, bound for Florida. Among those aboard were H. Leslie Atlass, vice president of CBS in charge of its Chicago office, the registered owner of the yacht; Muth and Darr; Frank E. Johnson, a purchasing agent employed by CBS; Raymond Mendel, acting first mate, employed by Atlass; Robert L. Smith, engineer of the yacht, employed by Atlass, and John Wasilas, a painter employed by CBS.

On October 22, 1956, after having been stranded in the St. Clair River for two days, the yacht proceeded under her own power to the Detroit Basin, Inc., a shipyard in the Detroit River. On October 23, she was there placed on a marine rail and lifted out of the water to facilitate an inspection for damages, if any, resulting from the grounding. The yacht remained on the marine rail until after Muth and Darr drowned.

The marine rail was 101' long and 34' wide. Along the north (or inshore) end, it was level with the dock and there was a place 10' wide to walk onto the marine rail bed without stepping across any gap. The yacht faced north in its position on the marine rail. On the eastern edge of the rail bed there were eight stanchions lined in a north-south row 13' apart. The base of each stanchion was 15" wide. Between the second and third, and also between the seventh and eighth, stanchions, from the north, there were steel crosspieces, each an inch in diameter, which crossed at a height of 5 1/2'.

Immediately east of the eastern edge of the rail bed was a 32" gap, below which there was water. At a point opposite the mid-point between the first and second stanchions (from the north) the water was 10 to 15' deep. Immediately east of the eastern edge of the rail bed, after the gap, was a walkway about 5' wide which extended north and south for a distance of 65'. The level of this walkway was approximately 2" below the rail bed. Preparatory to doing repair work on the yacht, scaffolding was erected by the shipyard company on the starboard side and at her bow. While the yacht was on the marine rail, toilet and cooking facilities on board could not be used. Members of the crew slept on the yacht, although Johnson and Darr occasionally stayed on shore in a hotel.

Two means of ingress and egress were available, (1) a ladder between the rail bed and the gangway on the starboard side slightly forward of midship, which necessitated stepping across the gap, and (2) the north end of the rail bed which abutted the dock where there was no gap (inshore route). Abutting the east edge of the walkway was a boat shed, the west wall of which was 24' high, all glass except for a 4' concrete base. Inside the shed there were two north-south rows of ceiling light fixtures, four fixtures to a row.

While the yacht was on the marine rail or before, Atlass (petitioner) was joined by his son, Atlass, Jr., and his daughter, Harriet. On the morning of October 24, Atlass and members of his family left for Chicago, leaving Johnson in charge. Atlass was not again present at the yacht until after the fatal occurrence.

We now come to the events of the night of October 25, which culminated in the fatalities at about 3 o'clock the following morning. At about 7 p.m. (after dark), Smith, Mendel, Johnson, Wasilas, Muth and Darr went ashore to eat. The group left by the route they had most frequently taken, going from the vessel gangway down the ladder on the marine rail platform and then stepping across the gap to the walkway. This was at a point about 50' from the north end of the walkway where there was an entrance from the boat shed. The party could have used the inshore route that night, where it was not necessary to cross any water. Everyone, including Muth and Darr, had used the inshore route on previous occasions, both in daylight and dark. Mendel returned to the ship at about 8 p.m., and Wasilas at about 9 p.m.

After dinner, Johnson, Muth and Darr went to a movie, then to a tavern known as Garvin's Bar where they found Smith and took turns ordering rounds of drinks. Muth was drinking straight whiskey with beer chasers. The bar stopped serving drinks at 2 a.m., and shortly thereafter Muth, Darr and Smith left, having been in the tavern three hours. A few minutes later they appeared at the boat shed through which they must pass in returning to the yacht. Gildersleeve, who had been the night watchman for thirteen years, unlocked the shed, turned on the overhead lights and permitted the three men to pass through. Darr was attempting to hold Muth as they went through the door, three or four steps ahead of Smith. As they emerged on the walkway, Darr was holding Muth up. They could have gone straight ahead and reached the rail bed by the inshore route, but instead they turned left and started down the walkway. About 15' from the ...

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