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ISBRANDTSEN COMPANY, INC. v. JOHNSON.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE THIRD CIRCUIT.
No. 493. Argued April 23, 1952.-Decided June 9, 1952.
In an admiralty proceeding by a seaman against his employer to
recover wages earned on a merchant vessel of United States registry, the employer may not set off against the seaman's wages its expenditures for the medical care and hospitalization of another member of the crew necessitated by injuries unjustifiably inflicted on him by the seaman during the voyage on which the wages were earned. Pp. 780–789.
(a) Congress has preempted the area relating to deductions and set-offs based on derelictions of duty as against a seaman's claim to his wages and, in effect, has excluded all of them except those which it has listed affirmatively. Pp. 781-789.
(b) Assuming that this seaman's unjustified attack upon another member of the crew amounted to a breach of general discipline, it hardly amounted to "willful disobedience to any lawful command at sea” within the meaning of R. S. § 4596, Fourth. P. 788.
(c) Assuming that it caused expense to his employer, it hardly amounted to "willfully damaging the vessel” or “any of the stores
or cargo” within the meaning of R. S. § 4596, Seventh. P. 788. 190 F. 2d 991, affirmed.
In an admiralty proceeding by a seaman against his employer to recover wages earned on a merchant vessel of United States registry, the District Court disallowed his employer's counterclaim. 91 F. Supp. 872. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 190 F. 2d 991. This Court granted certiorari. 342 U. S. 940. Affirmed, p. 789.
Mark D. Alspach argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief was Thomas E. Byrne, Jr.
William M. Alper argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Abraham E. Freedman and Charles Lakatos.
Opinion of the Court.
MR. JUSTICE BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question before us arises in an admiralty proceeding by a seaman against his employer to recover wages earned on a merchant vessel of United States registry. The question is whether the employer may set off against the seaman's wages its expenditures for the medical care and hospitalization of another member of the crew necessitated by injuries inflicted on him by the seaman, without justification, during the voyage on which the wages were earned. For the reasons hereafter stated we hold that it may not do so.
In 1948, respondent, Johnson, was employed by petitioner, Isbrandtsen Company, Inc., as a messman on a foreign voyage of a vessel of United States registry, chartered by petitioner. On April 21, while the vessel was on its course in the Pacific, Johnson, without justification, stabbed Brandon, another member of the crew. He injured Brandon so severely that petitioner found it necessary to divert its vessel from its course in order to hospitalize Brandon on the Island of Tonga. Johnson makes no claim for wages earned after April 21. However, when discharged in Philadelphia, May 31, 1948, Johnson claimed $439.27 as earned wages due him above all deductions, without making allowance for any expenditures made by petitioner for the care or hospitalization of Brandon. When petitioner refused to pay Johnson anything, he filed a libel and complaint in the United States District Court to recover the balance due on his earned wages, plus interest, transportation to Seattle (his port of signing on) and double wages for each day of unlawful delay in the payment of the sum due. Petitioner set up a counterclaim of $2,500, later reduced to $1,691.55, for
1 Under R. S. $ 4529, as amended, 30 Stat. 756, 38 Stat. 1164, 46 U. S. C. § 596. See note 7, infra.
Opinion of the Court.
expenses and losses caused it by Johnson's attack on Brandon. It contended also that the nature of this defense demonstrated the existence of sufficient statutory cause for its delay in making payment.
The District Court disallowed petitioner's counterclaim and entered judgment for respondent's earned wages and transportation allowance, plus interest and costs. It disallowed respondent's claim for double wages. 91 F. Supp. 872. Petitioner appealed but the Court of Appeals affirmed. 190 F. 2d 991.
190 F. 2d 991. We granted certiorari because the decision below presents an important question of maritime law not heretofore determined by this Court. 342 U. S. 940.
Petitioner cites several early lower court decisions which allowed a set-off against a seaman's suit for wages. These were largely rendered before the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872 or rendered later without discussion of that or subsequent legislation. We are convinced, however, that the legislation passed by Congress for the protection of seamen, beginning in 1872, has now covered this field. Petitioner's set-off is not prescribed,
2 The latter sum is the stipulated amount of petitioner's expenditures for hospitalization, medical care, repatriation and subsistence of Brandon, plus petitioner's expenses for the diversion of its vessel to Tonga, including pilotage, manifests, harbor dues, fuel consumed and food for the crew.
3 See Collie v. Fergusson, 281 U. S. 52.
* For the Shipping Commissioners Act, see 17 Stat. 262 et seq., Tit. LIII, R. S. $$ 4501-4612, 46 U. S. C., c. 18, S8 541-713. The Act of July 20, 1790, 1 Stat. 131, in effect prior to 1872, was a limited forerunner of the expansive remedial legislation that followed. It did not attempt to cover the field to an extent comparable to that done by the later legislation. Accordingly, decisions rendered before 1872, recognizing an employer's right of recoupment against seamen's wages under general maritime law, are not authoritative guides today. The early cases are reviewed in 1 Norris, The Law of Seamen (1951), 378
Opinion of the Court.
recognized or permitted by such legislation. So far as that legislation goes, such a set-off is not available as a defense against a seaman's claim for earned wages. R. S. § 4547, 30 Stat. 756, 46 U. S. C. $ 604. On the other hand, the absence of such authorization for the employer to set off such a counterclaim does not preclude it from seeking to collect the claim otherwise.
For the purposes of this case, we may assume that petitioner owed Brandon the legal duty to provide him with the medical care and hospitalization which it provided and also owed him the duty to divert its vessel from its course to secure his hospitalization at Tonga. Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co., 318 U.S. 724, 730, 732–736. See Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, 287 U. S. 367, 375; Alpha S. S. Corp. v. Cain, 281 U. S. 642; Jamison v. Encarnacion, 281 U. S. 635. Also, we may assume, without deciding, that respondent owed petitioner an obligation to reimburse petitioner for the expense which he thus thrust upon it by his unjustified attack upon a fellow seaman.
Whenever congressional legislation in aid of seamen has been considered here since 1872, this Court has emphasized that such legislation is largely remedial and calls for liberal interpretation in favor of the seamen. The history and scope of the legislation is reviewed in Aguilar v. Standard Oil Co., 318 U. S. 724, 727-735, and notes. “Our historic national policy, both legislative and judicial, points the other way (from burdening seamen). Congress has generally sought to safeguard seamen's rights." Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U. S. 239, 246. "[T]he maritime law by inveterate tradition has made the ordinary seaman a member of a favored class. He is a 'ward of the admiralty, often ignorant and helpless, and so in need of protection against himself as well as others. ... Discrimination may thus be rational in respect of remedies for wages.” Warner v. Goltra, 293 U. S.
Opinion of the Court.
155, 162; Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, 287 U. S. 367, 375, 377; Wilder v. Inter-Island Navigation Co., 211 U. S. 239, 246–248; Patterson v. Bark Eudora, 190 U. S. 169; Brady v. Daly, 175 U. S. 148, 155-157. "The ancient characterization of seamen as 'wards of admiralty' is even more accurate now than it was formerly.” Robertson v. Baldwin, 165 U. S. 275, 287;' Harden v. Gordon, 11 Fed. Cas. No. 6,047, 2 Mason (Cir. Ct. Rep.) 541, 556.
Statutes which invade the common law or the general maritime law are to be read with a presumption favoring the retention of long-established and familiar principles, except when a statutory purpose to the contrary is evident. No rule of construction precludes giving a natural meaning to legislation like this that obviously is of a remedial, beneficial and amendatory character. It should be interpreted so as to effect its purpose. Marine legislation, at least since the Shipping Commissioners Act of June 7, 1872, 17 Stat. 262, should be construed to make effective its design to change the general maritime law so as to improve the lot of seamen. "The rule that statutes in derogation of the common law are to be strictly construed does not require such an adherence to the letter as would defeat an obvious legislative purpose or lessen the scope plainly intended to be given to the measure.” Jamison v. Encarnacion, 281 U.S. 635, 640; Texas & P.R. Co. v. Abilene Cotton Oil Co., 204 U. S. 426, 437, 440.
5 That appraisal was reaffirmed in Cortes v. Baltimore Insular Line, 287 U. S. 367, 377. Current testimony is added by the following statement:
“In my dealings with seamen, a class with whom I come in frequent contact, I find that they are perhaps better educated and better dressed than their fellows of a century ago, but, in general, as improvident and prone to the extremes of trust and suspicion as their forebears who ranged the seas, but withal a likeable lot." 1 Norris, The Law of Seamen (1951), Preface.