Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., Inc.,
247 U.S. 372 (1918)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., Inc., 247 U.S. 372 (1918)

Chelentis v. Luckenbach Steamship Company, Incorporated

No. 657

Argued April 18, 1918

Decided June 3, 1918

247 U.S. 372


By the general maritime law, the vessel owner is liable only for the maintenance, cure, and wages of a seaman injured in the service of his .ship, by the negligence of a member of the crew, whether

Page 247 U. S. 373

a superior officer or not, and this liability is not subject to be enlarged to full common law indemnity by the law of a state. Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U. S. 205. So held in a case brought in a state court of New York and removed to the district court, to recover full common law damages from a Delaware owner for injuries received at sea on a voyage to New York.

Section 20 of the Seamen's Act of March 4, 1915, c. 153, 38 Stat. 1185, declaring "seamen having command shall not be held to be fellow servants with those under their authority," was not intended to substitute the common law measure of liability for the maritime rule in such cases.

The Judiciary Act of 1789, § 9, giving exclusive original admiralty and maritime jurisdiction to the district courts, saves "to suitor, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it." Held that this, recognizing the fundamental distinction between rights and remedies, allows a right sanctioned by maritime law to be enforced through an appropriate common law remedy, but does not give a plaintiff his election to have the defendant's liability measured by common law standards instead of those prescribed by the maritime law.

243 F. 536 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 247 U. S. 378

Primary Holding

States cannot substitute the indemnity rule under the common law when assigning damages in place of the maritime rule for measure of recovery in accidents at sea.


Chelentis was injured and underwent an amputation as a result of an accident that happened while he was working on a ship owned by Luckenbach. The seaman sued Luckenbach under a common-law theory of negligence, seeking compensation in state court for the amputation. He did not argue that the ship was unseaworthy, nor did he seek maintenance, cure, or wages. The case was removed to federal court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, and Luckenbach received a directed verdict there.



  • James Clark McReynolds (Author)
  • Edward Douglass White
  • Joseph McKenna
  • William Rufus Day
  • Willis Van Devanter

The Constitution requires uniformity and consistency with regard to all issues of a commercial nature that affect interstate commerce or commerce between the U.S. and foreign nations. State interference with the principles of maritime law would undermine this uniformity and consistency. The Judiciary Act of 1789 does not give seamen a common-law right of full indemnity, since it did not give the states a form of authority that would undermine maritime law or other aspects of international and interstate relations. The Act provides only the right of a common-law remedy if it can be supported by the common law. Maritime law offers the appropriate set of doctrines to resolve this case.


  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Author)


  • Mahlon Pitney (Author)


  • Louis Dembitz Brandeis (Author)


  • John Hessin Clarke (Author)

Case Commentary

The difference between rights and remedies emerges here in that a common-law remedy can enforce a right under maritime law, but common-law rights cannot replace rights under maritime law. (Rights are the basis of a claim, while remedies are the means used to enforce rights.)

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