Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Erie Lackawanna R. Co.

PETITIONER: Atlantic Coast Line R. Co.
RESPONDENT: Erie Lackawanna R. Co.
LOCATION: Bay Marchand Area

DOCKET NO.: 71-107
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 406 US 340 (1972)
ARGUED: Apr 17, 1972 / Apr 18, 1972
DECIDED: May 15, 1972

ADVOCATES:
Barrett Prettyman, Jr. - for respondents
Devereux Milburn - for petitioner
E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr. -

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Erie Lackawanna R. Co.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 1972 in Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Erie Lackawanna R. Co.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 17, 1972 in Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Erie Lackawanna R. Co.

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in no. 71-107, Atlantic Coast line Rail Road against Erie Lackawanna Rail Road.

Devereux Milburn:

Mr. Chief justice and may it please the Court.

Your Honors please, I would like to reserve five minutes for rebuttal at the end of my argument.

Warren E. Burger:

The white light will signal your time.

Devereux Milburn:

The question which this appeal presents to the Court is whether or not this Court should recognize a right to contribution in maritime noncollision cases.

An obstacle to granting such a right is Halcyon Lines against Haenn, a famous case.

A subsidiary question is whether contribution by the Erie Railroad is precluded by the Longshoremen & Harbor Workers' Compensation Act.

An alternative is should the Court of Appeals have applied a New Jersey statue, creating a right of contribution by supplementation.

The factual setting in which these questions ought to be decided is relatively simple and can be briefly stated.

An action was commenced in May of 1966 against Atlantic by a plaintiff Benazet for injuries he sustained on July 30, 1964.

For those injuries, Erie Railroad paid him compensation under the Act.

The jurisdiction of the District Court rested on diversity of the citizenship.

A box car belonging to Atlantic, but on Erie's tracks and having been in Erie's possession for three days, rolled down the Erie's tracks, across a floating bridge and on to a car float which was floating.

Benazet climbed of the back of the box car to adjust the brakes and while turning the wheel, the brake wheel, the foot board gave away, thus throwing his weight backwards against the wheel and the supports of the wheel gave way and Benazet fell to the deck and suffered serious injuries.

This occurred after the Atlantic box car had been through many railroads as stated in the brief for Erie Railroad.

Erie, although it had a duty to inspect upon receiving the car, did not detect the decay of the foot board or the fissure in the supports of the wheel which could be detected from the ground.

The case was -- as was set aside, the case was tried on the grounds that it was a common law tort and a maritime law was not thought off until after the summation by both counsel and just prior to the charge, when a memorandum was submitted that this thing, that the box car was on it was float and not attached to the pier and not attached to the land except by the floating bridge and therefore maritime law applied.

Counsel were given from 5 'o clock that evening until 9 'o clock next morning to readjust their thinking and suddenly become experts in maritime law.

The District Judge gave a questionnaire to the jurors.

The jurors found that Atlantic was negligent.

The jurors found that Erie was negligent and the jurors further found that Erie’s negligence was a substantial factor contributing to the injuries of Benazet.

The Judge, judge Cooper dismissed Atlantic's third party claim against Erie on the ground that in maritime law, no right of contribution existed and refused supplementation by using the New Jersey Joint Tortfeasor's Contribution Act.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed while finding that our arguments were appealing, nevertheless stating that they propound by the Halcyon decision of this Court.

Certiorari was granted by this court on October 26, 1971.

The first problem that we are faced with, obviously is Halcyon against Haenn.

That decision decided that a right to contribution had never been extended in maritime noncollision cases.

This was true even though such a right existed in collision cases.

Furthermore, the court held that this was a subject for Congress rather than for judicial decision.

Potter Stewart:

In collision a case it's a fifty-fifty rule, isn't it, regarding --

Devereux Milburn:

At present time Your Honor, I believe you have that problem before you on the certiorari of October 26, 1971.