Goett v. Union Carbide Corporation

PETITIONER: Ellen Goett as administratrix of the estate of Marvin Paul Goett
RESPONDENT: Union Carbide Corp. and Amherst Barge Corp.
LOCATION: Dry Docks at Reed, WV

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 361 US 340 (1960)
ARGUED: Nov 12, 1959
DECIDED: Jan 18, 1960
GRANTED: Mar 02, 1959

Charles M. Love - for the respondent
Harvey Goldstein - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Ellen Goett sought recovery for her husband’s death under the West Virginia Wrongful Death Act. Her husband, Marvin Paul Goett, drowned while repairing a barge owned by Union Carbide Corp. Marvin worked for Amherst Barge Corp. as a sand blaster. Ellen argued that Union Carbide was negligent when it delivered the barge to Amherst for repairs without any rescue equipment. The district court ruled in favor of the Goetts, finding that the barge was unseaworthy and Union Carbide was negligent. The court awarded the maximum amount of damages based on negligence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that Union Carbide did not owe a duty of seaworthiness to Amherst employees. The court also held that the barge was not unseaworthy but did not indicate whether the Goetts could recover damages if it were.


(1) Was the barge unseaworthy?

(2) Does maritime law allow recovery for wrongful death independently of the West Virginia Wrongful Death Act?

Media for Goett v. Union Carbide Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 1959 (Part 1) in Goett v. Union Carbide Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 1959 (Part 2) in Goett v. Union Carbide Corporation

Earl Warren:

Mr. Love, you may continue your argument.

Charles M. Love:

Thank you.

May the Court please, at the time of recess, I was attempting to point out to the Court that there is no great social or moral injustice to be righted involved in this case and I would like to say to Your Honors why I make that statement.

This is not a question of a wrong without a remedy.

This plaintiff already has remedies, at least four in number.

In the first place, this is an action grounded and based upon the West Virginia Wrongful Death Act statute which is cognizable by the courts of West Virginia.

The same action is cognizable under proper considerations such as diversity of citizenship in the federal courts.

In addition to that, this petitioner has her rights under the West Virginia Workmen's Compensation Act and/or under the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers' Act, and I might say that the benefits under either of those acts, it is in the record in this case that there would be slightly in excess of $20,000 under the Longshoremen and Harbor Workers' Act and it is also on the record in this case that Amherst stated to the Court through its counsel, on record page 176 that they stand ready to pay that at any time and also in the record at page 78 that petitioner's counsel stated that he had advised the petitioner not to file for it at this time, but she can file for it at anytime she wants to.

Now what is involved here is whether or not there shall be another, an additional remedy in addition to these four which this petitioner or any like petitioner already has.

Now this Court decided in the Harrisburg and subsequent to or -- I'm not sure of the day of the passage the Great Lakes Act, but anyway, Congress considered the matter in the Great Lakes Act and very carefully not only in the legislative history of the Act as it was pointed out by one of the opinions of this Court, rendered it so that it would not impinge upon the State Wrongful Death Acts.

Now in addition to that in the Jones Act, the same matter was considered and in the Jones Act, which provides for a seaman to sue his employer, the same right was also carefully limited.

So what we're really arguing about here is whether in addition to the remedies already available to the petitioner, the petitioner and others like him or like her shall have another remedy.

Now, in considering this question, it seems to me that it is necessary and as indicated by one of the questions of the Chief Justice to consider what -- what procedural questions are involved because that's -- that's all it is assuming that the Tungus is correct in deciding that the -- a right grounded upon a State Act must be taken with its burdens and with its limitations.

Now, what are the limitations in the State Act to which I refer?

Well, one of them is and the principal one is that it shall arise from the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another.

Now we've argued these legal questions at length in our brief and I don't care to take too much of the Court's time about this but in addition to that, there are other limitations in the State Act, which it seems to me are important and which preserve to litigants certain rights.

Now the first of those is the matter of negligence or the proximate cause and that includes the question of the duty which an owner holds to an employee of an independent contractor making affairs.

It includes what defenses shall be allowed to the defendant.

It includes the question of the limitation of the amount of damages which a defendant may recover.

And in addition, it includes specifically the manner in which those damages maybe assessed.

Now the West Virginia Act says that the plaintiff may have to get the exact language, every such action shall be brought by and in the name of the person or representative in the amount distributed as provided by law, and in every such action the jury -- the jury may give such damages as they shall deem fair and just and then later, it says again the jury may give such damages, as shall equal such financial or pecuniary laws.

I know of no reason and none has been cited in either of the courts why that explicit provision and method for assessing damages should be ignored by any court.

The citation of the Workmen and Siebel cases in oral argument and also in the plaintiff's brief, it seems to me is inadvertent because those cases like many other cases cited, relate to matters which do not arise under state grounded -- state based rights such as are involved here.

They involve limitations which a state tries to put upon collision damages and things which are -- like that which are clearly within the purview of admiralty and of course cannot and should not be limited by state law, but those cases have no application to a case in which the right is grounded, if there is a right at all.

It's grounded upon the State Wrongful Death Acts.

Now there is one further question which I don't know whether it will be reached by this Court or not, and that is a question of indemnification.

It seems to me that Carbide having delivered a barge to an independent contractor in the condition in which it was operated and in the condition in which it was certificated, with all of the equipment which it was supposed to carry to an independent contractor for repairs cannot be said to have been in any way negligent even under the doctrine of seaworthiness or otherwise in this case.

And we so submit to Your Honors that if there was negligence, it was not the negligence of Carbide but the negligence of those who created the condition and I'm not admitting that the condition was negligent, but it certainly if it was negligence, it was the responsibility of the company which created it, that is to say the Amherst Barge Company.

Now they knew that men were going to be working there, that their men were going to be working there, that they were going to be working there with respirators and hoods and it was up to Amherst Barge Company to determine when the barge should be taken out of the river and on the marine ways which were just almost immediately adjacent, they were adjacent.

In point of fact, when the next time Carbide had a man there which was on the 7th, it's two days after the drowning, the barge was upon the ways and at that time, extension had been erected.