1. No suit to recover damages for the death of a human being
caused by negligence may be maintained in the admiralty courts of
the United States under the general maritime law. P. 257 U. S.
2. But where death upon navigable waters follows from a maritime
tort committed on navigable waters within a state whose statutes
give a right of action on account of death by wrongful act, the
admiralty courts will entertain a libel in personam
the damages sustained by those to whom such right is given. P.
257 U. S.
3. The state statutes of limitation are applicable to such
proceedings in the federal courts. So held
in a case where
the injury and death occurred within the state where the libel was
brought and whose statutes creating the cause of action and
providing a limitation were applied. P. 257 U. S.
Judgment of district court reversed.
Certiorari to review a case pending in the circuit court of
appeals on appeal from the district court in admiralty.
Page 257 U. S. 238
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS, delivered the opinion of the Court.
The circuit court of appeals certified certain questions for
instruction, and thereafter we directed that the cause be sent here
for determination as if upon appeal. Judicial Code, § 239.
Manuel Souza, a citizen and resident of California, was
instantly killed, August 5, 1916, while employed as a stevedore by
the petitioner and at work in the hold of the
Page 257 U. S. 239
a Norwegian vessel under charter to it, then
anchored in San Francisco Bay and discharging her cargo. The libel
alleged that the injury was caused by coal negligently permitted to
fall from a steel hoisting bucket.
Relying upon the California Workmen's Compensation Act of 1913,
the Industrial Accident Commission granted an award in favor of the
widow and children, which the supreme court of the state annulled
August 6, 1917 -- a year and a day subsequent to the death.
Shortly thereafter, August 21st, the widow and children began an
admiralty suit in personam
against the petitioner in the
United States District Court, Northern District of California,
wherein they alleged that the accident resulted from its negligence
and prayed for damages. Later respondent, having been appointed
administrator, filed an amended libel with like allegations and
prayer, and upon this the cause was ultimately tried. Petitioner
denied liability and relied upon § 340, subsection 3, California
Code of Civil Procedure, which requires that an action for damages
consequent upon death caused by wrongful act, or negligence shall
be brought within one year. *
Page 257 U. S. 240
The district court held in favor of the administrator, and
awarded substantial damages; the circuit court of appeals has sent
up the whole cause under our direction.
It is established doctrine that no suit to recover damages for
the death of a human being caused by negligence may be maintained
in the admiralty courts of the United States under the general
maritime law. At the common law, no civil action lies for an injury
resulting from death. The maritime law as generally accepted by
maritime nations leaves the matter untouched, and in practice, each
of them has applied the same rule for the sea which it maintains on
land. The Harrisburg, 119 U. S. 204
119 U. S. 213
The Alaska, 130 U. S. 201
130 U. S. 209
La Bourgogne, 210 U. S. 95
210 U. S.
How far this rule of nonliability adopted and enforced by our
admiralty courts in the absence of an applicable statute may be
modified, changed, or supplemented by state legislation has been
the subject of consideration here, but no complete solution of the
question has been announced.
In Cooley v. Board of
12 How. 299, and Ex parte
13 Wall. 236, the power of a state to
legislate concerning subjects maritime in their nature was under
discussion, and it was pointed out that, as to certain local
matters, a state statute may grant rights which will be enforced in
an admiralty court.
In American Steamboat Co. v.
16 Wall. 531, 83 U. S. 532
the decedent was killed on navigable waters within Rhode Island.
Relying upon the death statute of that state, his administrator
sued and recovered in one of its courts. This Court affirmed the
judgment. Whether an admiralty court could have entertained a
proceeding based upon the statute was mooted, but not
Sherlock v. Alling, 93 U. S. 99
out of a collision between steamboats on the Ohio River within the
Page 257 U. S. 241
of Indiana whose statute gave a right of action for death caused
by wrongful act, and a recovery in the state court was affirmed
here. The defense rested primarily upon the erroneous theory that
the statute encroached upon the commercial powers of Congress.
There was no discussion of the point now directly presented. In
Butler v. Boston, etc., Steamship Co., 130
U. S. 557
, 130 U. S. 558
the point was raised but left without expression of opinion.
The Hamilton, 207 U. S. 398
207 U. S. 405
an admiralty proceeding for limitation of liability, affirmed the
validity of claims for damages resulting from death at sea based
upon the statute of Delaware where the vessel's owner had been
The inferior federal courts on the admiralty side have enforced
rights of action based upon death statutes, holding they had
jurisdiction as the claims grew out of torts on navigable waters
and were maritime in their nature. The City of Norwalk,
F. 98, and the cases cited. See also
Hughes on Admiralty,
2nd ed., pp. 228, 230 et seq.
In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.
, Chelentis v. Luckenback Steamship Co.,
247 U. S. 372
Union Fish Co. v. Erickson, 247
U. S. 308
, and Knickerbocker Ice Co. v.
Stewart, 253 U. S. 149
have recently discussed the theory under which the general maritime
law became a part of our national law, and pointed out the
inability of the states to change its general features so as to
defeat uniformity -- but the power of a state to make some
modifications or supplements was affirmed. And we further held that
rights and liabilities in respect of torts upon the sea ordinarily
depend upon the rules accepted and applied in admiralty courts
which are controlling wherever suit may be instituted. Under this
view, American Steamboat Co. v. Chace
and Sherlock v.
support the right to recover under a local statute in
an admiralty court for
Page 257 U. S. 242
death occurring on navigable waters within the state when caused
by tort there committed.
As the logical result of prior decisions, we think it follows
that, where death upon such waters follows from a maritime tort
committed on navigable waters within a state whose statutes give a
right of action on account of death by wrongful act, the admiralty
courts will entertain a libel in personam
for the damages
sustained by those to whom such right is given. The subject is
maritime and local in character, and the specified modification of
or supplement to the rule applied in admiralty courts when
following the common law will not work material prejudice to the
characteristic features of the general maritime law, nor interfere
with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its
international and interstate relations. Southern Pacific Co. v.
The California Code of Civil Procedure, § 340, prescribes one
year as the period within which an action for death caused by
wrongful action or negligence shall be brought. It is admitted
that, under the circumstances here presented, suit against
petitioner, if instituted in a court of that state, would have been
barred, and we are of opinion that the same limitation must be
enforced in respect of the admiralty proceeding. It was so decided
in The Harrisburg, 119 U. S. 213
119 U. S. 214
a proceeding in rem
begun in the United States District
Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The steamer belonged to
the port of Philadelphia, where she was duly enrolled, and the
accident occurred upon navigable waters within Massachusetts. The
Pennsylvania statute permitted suit for damages resulting from
death, and provided that "the action shall be brought within one
year from the death, and not thereafter." The Massachusetts statute
provided that, in case of death resulting from the wrongful action
of a corporation, the executor might recover by indictment a fine
not exceeding $5,000, and further, that indictments
Page 257 U. S. 243
against a corporation for loss of life shall be prosecuted
within one year from the injury causing the death. Through Mr.
Chief Justice Waite, this Court said:
"The statutes create a new legal liability, with the right to a
suit for its enforcement, provided the suit is brought within
twelve months, and not otherwise. The time within which the suit
must be brought operates as a limitation of the liability itself as
created, and not of the remedy alone. It is a condition attached to
the right to sue at all. No one will pretend that the suit in
Pennsylvania, or the indictment in Massachusetts, could be
maintained if brought or found after the expiration of the year,
and it would seem to be clear that, if the admiralty adopts the
statute as a rule of right to be administered within its own
jurisdiction, it must take the right subject to the limitations
which have been made a part of its existence. It matters not that
no rights of innocent parties have attached during the delay. Time
has been made of the essence of the right, and the right is lost if
the time is disregarded. The liability and the remedy are created
by the same statutes, and the limitations of the remedy are
therefore to be treated as limitations of the right."
See also Davis v. Mills, 194 U.
, 194 U. S.
"An act relating to the maintenance of actions for death on the
high seas and other navigable waters," approved March 30, 1920, c.
111, 41 Stat. 537, gives a right of action for damages resulting
from death caused by wrongful act, neglect or default occurring on
the high seas beyond one marine league from the shore. It expressly
"That the provisions of any state statute giving or regulating
rights of action of remedies for death shall not be affected by
this Act. Nor shall this Act apply to the Great Lakes or to any
waters within the territorial limits of any state, or to any
navigable waters in the Panama Canal Zone."
In the present cause, the district court rightly assumed
jurisdiction of the proceedings, but erred in holding the
Page 257 U. S. 244
right of action was not barred under the state statute of
limitation. Accordingly, its judgment must be reversed and the
cause remanded there, with instructions to dismiss the libel.
"CALIFORNIA CODE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE."
"TITLE II. TIME OF COMMENCING CIVIL ACTIONS."
"Chapter I. TIME OF COMMENCING ACTIONS IN GENERAL."
"Section 312. Commencement of civil actions.
actions, without exception, can only be commenced within the
periods prescribed in this title, after the cause of action shall
have accrued, unless where, in special cases, a different
limitation is prescribed by statute."
"Chapter III. TIME OF COMMENCING ACTIONS OTHER THAN FOR RECOVERY
OF REAL PROPERTY."
"Section 335. Periods of limitation prescribed.
periods prescribed for the commencement of actions other than for
the recovery of real property, are as follows:"
"* * * *"
"Section 340. Within one year.
"* * * *"
"3. An action for libel, slander, assault, battery, false
imprisonment, seduction or for injury to or for the death of one
caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another or by a depositor
against a bank for the payment of a forged or raised check."