American Export Lines, Inc. v. Alvez

PETITIONER: American Export Lines, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Gilberto Alvez, Joseph Vinal Ship Maintenance, Inc.
LOCATION: Brooklyn Port Authority Marine Terminal

DOCKET NO.: 79-1
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: New York Court of Appeals

CITATION: 446 US 274 (1980)
ARGUED: Feb 26, 1980
DECIDED: May 12, 1980
GRANTED: Oct 29, 1979

Paul C. Matthews - on behalf of the Respondents
Stephen K. Carr - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Gilberto Alvez was a seaman on vacation from his regular trade. He was moonlighting for Joseph Vinal Ship Maintenance, Inc. as a harbor worker on the SS Export Builder, a vessel owned by American Export Lines, Inc (“AELI”). On October 13, 1972, while the SS Export Builder was in New York waters, the handle of a defective tension jack struck Alvez in the eye. He completely lost his right eye in the accident. He also suffered from depression as a result of the accident and his injuries.

Alvez sued AELI in New York, claiming damages resulting from AELI’s negligence and the unseaworthiness of their ship. Alvez then moved to add his wife, Juanita Alvez, as a party plaintiff, claiming that his injuries deprived her of the benefits of their marriage.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (“Jones Act”) created several classes of sea workers, allowing a wider breadth of causes of action for those injured within the United States’ territorial waters. It did not, however, specifically provide a cause of action for loss of consortium for spouses. Similarly, the Death on the High Seas Act of 1920 (“DOHSA”) did not create a specific right to a cause of action for loss of consortium. The district court denied the claim for loss of consortium. The appellate court reversed, noting that while such motions were not available in some maritime law cases, the Supreme Court in Sea-Land Servs. v. Gaudet allowed a decedent’s dependents to recover for loss of society in a wrongful death maritime law claim. Thus, there is no clear precedent prohibiting claims of loss of consortium from nonfatal injuries.

New York’s Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the appellate court. It rejected AELI’s use of Igneri v. Cie. De Transports Oceaniques, a U.S. Court of Appeals Second Circuit decision holding that the spouse of an injured longshoreman had no cause of action for loss of consortium. It noted that most states now allowed a spouse to state a cause of action for loss of consortium. It also reasoned that the heavy burden now placed on Juanita Alvez as a marriage partner justified allowing her to sue for damages.


May Alvez’s wife sue American Export Lines, Inc. for loss of consortium, as a result of AELI’s negligence and the unseaworthiness of the USS Export Builder, under federal maritime law?

Media for American Export Lines, Inc. v. Alvez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 26, 1980 (Part 1) in American Export Lines, Inc. v. Alvez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 26, 1980 (Part 2) in American Export Lines, Inc. v. Alvez

Warren E. Burger:

You may continue.

Paul C. Matthews:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

This morning I had already discussed the compelling analogy between the right of the widow to recover for loss of society and that of a wife of a badly crippled worker.

I would like to spend the remainder of my time discussing the decision of Judge Friendly in the Ignerie case, discussing the Christofferson case, and discussing the contentions of the petitioner with regard to the uniformity.

With regard to Ignerie, I believe that the decision of Judge Friendly was not in any way dogmatic, did not intend to be engraved in stone, but rather was invitational and that it left open a door through which the Alvez court, the Court of Appeals for the State of New York stepped through in the decision below.

Judge Friendly wrote in Ignerie, "If there were evidence that maritime law generally recognized a claim for negligent injury to such an intangible right, or if the common law clearly authorized a wife's recovery, the gravitational pull of such concepts with respect to the wife of a longshoreman might be stronger than that of the analogy to the statute denying such a recovery to a seaman's wife."

At the time, in 1963, when Judge Friendly wrote those words, 19 jurisdictions had denied the remedy.

Of those 19, today 15 have reversed the law so that we have at the present time only four jurisdictions of those 19, plus one additional, that being Louisiana where the right has been denied.

In addition, Judge Friendly indicated that the rights were too personal, too intangible and too conjectural to be determined by a jury, but that contention was answered by this Court in Gaudet which indicated that the same argument could be made with regard to any damages for pain and suffering and which indeed indicated that for many, many years, indeed centuries, that courts and juries had been called upon to pass upon the right for loss of consortium.

With regard to a contention I think that was made or a mention in Judge Friendly's opinion, that the damages were parasitic in nature, this I think was well answered by the court below, by Judge Jasen who said, referring to a wife, in the good times she lights the hearth with her own inimitable glow, but when tragedy strikes it is part of her unique glory that forsaking the shelter, the comfort, the warmth of the home, she puts her arm and shoulder to the plow.

We are now at the heart of the issue.

In such circumstances when her husband's love is denied her, his strength sapped and his protection destroyed, in short, when she has been forced by the defendant to exchange a heart for a husk, we are urged to rule that she has suffered no loss compensable at the law.

But let some scoundrel dent a dishpan in the family kitchen and the law in all its majesty will convene the court, will march with measured tread to the halls of justice and will there suffer a jury of her peers to assess the damages.

Why are we asked then in this case to look the other way?

Is this what is meant when it is said that justice is blind?"

Thurgood Marshall:

Mr. Matthews, do you know any way we can get Congress to pass on this?

Paul C. Matthews:

Your Honor --

Thurgood Marshall:

I mean the more you go on with it, it seems like something Congress should get into.

Paul C. Matthews:

I think, Your Honor, that Congress has quite clearly delegated this area to this Court, and I think that in the Fitzgerald case this Court recognized its duty and its responsibility in that area.

So I don't think it is something that in any means is within the province of Congress.

I --

William H. Rehnquist:

Do you think Congress could not pass a law saying the right of consortium shall not be a compensable element in an action like this?

Paul C. Matthews:

Of course they could do so, but the fact that they have not done so one way or the other is nothing that should be influential on this Court.

As this Court indicated in the opinion in Moragne, Congress has specifically left to this Court the duty in the maritime law of declaring what the rights of injured persons should be.

William H. Rehnquist:

That is not quite the same as saying it is not within the province of Congress.

Paul C. Matthews:

The power of course.

I would be the last to deny that, sir.

This Court indicated in Moragne that certainly it better becomes the humane and liberal character of proceedings in admiralty to give then to withhold the remedy when not required to do so by established and inflexible rules.

The basis for the statement that a blue-water seaman does not have or the wife of a blue-water seaman does not have this right is in the Christofferson case, where the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered the right of the wife on three grounds.

First, they considered the Jones Act, which they found did not allow this remedy, based upon Judge Friendly's decision in Ignerie.