United Pilots Assn. v. Halecki
358 U.S. 613 (1959)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United Pilots Assn. v. Halecki, 358 U.S. 613 (1959)

United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots

Association v. Halecki

No. 56

Argued October 23, 1958

Decided February 24, 1959

358 U.S. 613

Syllabus

While a pilot boat was being overhauled by a contractor at a shipyard in New Jersey, two employees of a specialized subcontractor went aboard to clean the generators with carbon tetrachloride, a task which could be performed only when there was no one else on board the ship, and which required the use of special equipment and special safety precautions. Though such special equipment was used, and the usual precautions were taken, one of these employees died of carbon tetrachloride poisoning. His administratrix brought this action for damages against the owners of the pilot boat in a federal district court, basing jurisdiction on diversity of citizenship. Under instructions that either unseaworthiness of the vessel or negligence would render the defendants liable, and that contributory negligence on the part of the decedent would serve only to mitigate damages, a jury returned a general verdict for the administratrix, and judgment was entered thereon. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the New Jersey Wrongful Death Act incorporates liability for unseaworthiness, as developed by federal law, and adopts the admiralty rule of comparative negligence when death occurs as a result of tortious conduct upon the navigable waters of that State.

Held:

1. The right of recovery depended upon the interpretation of New Jersey law, and this Court accepts the Court of Appeals' determination of the effect which New Jersey law would accord to the decedent's contributory negligence. The Tungus v. Skovgaard, ante, p. 358 U. S. 588. P. 358 U. S. 615.

2. Even if the Wrongful Death Act of New Jersey be interpreted as importing the federal maritime law of unseaworthiness, the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the circumstances of this case were such as to impose liability under that doctrine. Pp. 358 U. S. 615-618.

3. Since the doctrine of unseaworthiness was not applicable, it was error to instruct the jury that the shipowner could be held

Page 358 U. S. 614

liable even if the jury should find that the shipowner had exercised reasonable care. P. 358 U. S. 618.

4. As to the claim based on negligence, the evidence created an issue of fact to be determined by the jury. Pp. 358 U. S. 618-619.

5. A new trial will be required, since there is no way of knowing whether the invalid claim of unseaworthiness was the sole basis for the jury's verdict. P. 358 U. S. 615.

251 F.2d 708, judgment vacated and cause remanded.

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