Norfolk Shipbuilding Drydock Corporation v. Garris

PETITIONER: Norfolk Shipbuilding Drydock Corporation
RESPONDENT: Garris
LOCATION: Rhode Island General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 00-346
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 532 US 811 (2001)
ARGUED: Apr 18, 2001
DECIDED: Jun 04, 2001

ADVOCATES:
James T. Ferrini - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Patrick H. O'Donnell - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Christopher Garris' mother filed a complaint in Federal District Court alleging that her son died as the result of injuries he sustained while sandblasting aboard the USNS Maj. Stephen W. Pless. Because the vessel was berthed in the navigable waters of the United States, Garris invoked federal admiralty jurisdiction and sought damages under general maritime law. Garris asserted that the injuries were caused by the negligence of Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock Corporation. The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a federal claim. The court stated that no cause of action exists, under general maritime law, for death resulting from negligence. In reversing, the Court of Appeals noted that although the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet recognized a maritime cause of action for wrongful death resulting from negligence, the action was made appropriate by principles contained in precedent.

Question

Does a maritime cause of action for wrongful death resulting from negligence exist?

Media for Norfolk Shipbuilding Drydock Corporation v. Garris

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 2001 in Norfolk Shipbuilding Drydock Corporation v. Garris

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 04, 2001 in Norfolk Shipbuilding Drydock Corporation v. Garris

Antonin Scalia:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in two cases: the first is number 00-346, Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Corporation against Garris.

In this case the respondent’s son Christopher Garris was killed, as a result of injuries he suffered while working on board, the Ship Maj. Stephen W. Pless.

Since the ship was berthed in the navigable waters of the United States at time he was injured, she filed complaints in the District Court under federal admiralty jurisdiction.

She said the negligence of the petitioner, the Drydock Company and another party had caused her son’s death and she asked for damages under general maritime law which is law made by judges on the exercise of their admiralty powers.

The District Court dismissed her complaint.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed saying that “although this Court had not yet recognized a maritime cause of action for wrongful death resulting from negligence.”

The principles contained in our decision in Moragne versus States Marine Lines, a decision about some 30 years ago, made such an action appropriate.

We agree.

In Moragne, we held that the general maritime law provides a cause of action for wrongful death caused by breach of duty of unseaworthiness.

Unseaworthiness was the limit of our holding there but we cannot find any basis for distinguishing negligence from unseaworthiness.

Negligence is no less a “distinctive maritime dury than seaworthiness”.

As we explained in an opinion authored by Justice Scalia and filed with the Clerk today, the common law duties of care have not been adopted and retained unmodified by admiralty but have been adjusted to fit their maritime context.

We do not agree with the petitioner that Congress has preempted this cause of action by statute though if it had of course we would be obliged to enforce the statute.

None of the three statutes which are talked about by petitioner, the Jones Act, the Death on the High Seas Act, or the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act a preempt this cause of action.

Beyond preemption is a prudential matter or probably be the better course in many cases that assert new claims of maritime personal injury law to leave further development to Congress which is already legislated so extensively in the area.

But the cause of action we recognize today is new only in the most technical sense of a word.

The general maritime law has recognized the tort of negligence for more than a century and it has been clear since our Moragne decision that breaches of a maritime duty are actionable when they cause death, as when they cause injury.

We therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Ginsburg has filed an opinion concurring in part in which Justice Souter and Justice Breyer have joined.