RESPONDENT: Waterman Steamship Corporation
LOCATION: Bay County Circuit Court
DOCKET NO.: 229
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
CITATION: 373 US 206 (1963)
ARGUED: Mar 21, 1963
DECIDED: May 13, 1963
Facts of the case
Media for Gutierrez v. Waterman Steamship Corporation
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 21, 1963 in Gutierrez v. Waterman Steamship Corporation
Number 229, Frederico Marin Gutierrez, Petitioner, versus Waterman Steamship Corporation.
Harvey B. Nachman:
Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.
This is a case of a longshoreman who is injured on October 21, 1956 when he fell on the pier of the dock area.
He was engaged in the discharging of cargo from a particular vessel and beans had become scattered about the pier surface in the discharge operation from bags that had been broken aboard the vessel.
He filed his libel in the Southern District of New York in January 9, 1959 and pleaded excusable delay in the absence of prejudice to the respondent.
The case was then transferred to Puerto Rico, to the District Court of Puerto Rico, and the respondent answered the libel stating that, in its affirmative defenses, that the action was barred by laches.
The respondent then submitted interrogatories in which they asked the names of all the eyewitnesses which were furnished to the respondent.
Deposition of the libellant was taken and in March 1960, the case came on for trial.
At the end of the trial, the trial judge rendered a -- an oral opinion from the bench in which he stated that the only issue he wanted briefed was the question of medical damages, that he was satisfied, that there was negligence on the part of the shipowner, that the vessel was unseaworthy, and that both of these were the proximate causes of the injury, and that there was no laches because the respondent was not prejudiced.
Thereafter, the trial court rendered a memorandum opinion and formal findings of fact.
If I may allude to these findings of fact, they are on pages 18 and 19 of the record.
The trial court found that many bags aboard the vessels were defective and broken, that despite the work of coopers, beans had been observed spilling from drafts as they were being unloaded from the vessel, and that the beans scattered about the pier created a dangerous condition.
It went on to find that the cargo was defective and unseaworthy and that the shipowner was negligent in permitting the discharge when it knew or should have known that the in -- that injury, not the injured, but injury was likely to occur to people who were performing services on behalf of the vessel.
It went on to find that these were the proximate causes, and it also found that as to laches, all of the eyewitnesses were available.
The potential eyewitnesses were known to the respondent.
That all the documentary evidence relating to the voyage, the occurrence, the injury, and the medical treatment were available to the respondent, and in fact all of this documentary evidence was in fact produced at the trial by the respondent.
The Court concluded that it has jurisdiction and awarded damages in the sum of $18,250.
The respondent appealed and the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed and found that there was no unseaworthiness, that there was no negligence, and that the libellant was barred by laches.
We have petitioned for certiorari stating that the decision of the Court of Appeals was contrary to the decision of the Courts of Appeals of all the other Circuits that have passed upon the questions herein.
And a certiorari was granted in October and the first question I think we face is the power of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to reverse or to make findings of fact of its own.
The trial judge had before him the petitioner and all the eyewitnesses, and their demeanor and their credibility were for him to judge.
He was a -- in a peculiarly excellent position as a trial judge to gauge their credibility and demeanor, and that they all testified in Spanish, and the trial judge was fluent in Spanish.
There was some conflicting evidence as between the eyewitnesses and some of the documentary evidence and there was conflicting evidence between the various documents that were introduced by the respondent.
The weight of this evidence we submit was for the trial court as it was the question of laches, because this Court has held that laches is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial judge.
I must point out that there was no conflict in the evidence as to the occurrence of the accident or how it occurred.
And there was no conflict in the evidence as to whether or not the bags were torn aboard the vessel.
The documentary evidence of the respondent proved that the vessels were torn aboard the vessel.
The Court of Appeals extracted certain items from the documentary evidence and gave them more weight than the trial judge did.
It made inference of its own, it even misread one document, and on each disputed issue, it drew contrary conclusions and contrary inferences than did the trial judge.