Usner v. Luckenbach Overseas Corporation

RESPONDENT: Luckenbach Overseas Corporation
LOCATION: C-M School Corporate Office

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 400 US 494 (1971)
ARGUED: Nov 18, 1970
DECIDED: Jan 25, 1971

Facts of the case


Media for Usner v. Luckenbach Overseas Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 18, 1970 in Usner v. Luckenbach Overseas Corporation

Warren E. Burger:

Usner against Luckenbach Overseas Corporation, number 47.

Mr. Leg, before you leave the courtroom, I overlooked expressing the Courts appreciation for your accepting appointment in this case and for your assistance both to the Court and to your client.


Thank you Your Honor.

Warren E. Burger:

We thank you very much.


It's my pleasure to be of service.

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Brumfield, you may proceed whenever youre ready.

H. Alva Brumfield:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

The sole question presented in this case is whether operational negligence occurring at the time of the injury renders a vessel instantaneously unseaworthy is devoid of any problems of defective equipment on seaworthiness and any part of the vessel whatsoever.

A motion for a summary judgment filed by the ship owner was denied by the Trial Court on the basis of Mascuilli.

If this Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a holding that the operational negligence as presented in the case did not instantaneously make the ship unseaworthy and in effect refused to follow this, the Courts decision in Mascuilli.

Now, Mascuilli, the facts there are on all force with the facts here.

The facts in Usner was that the ship was seaworthy, the equipment was, -- it was the operational negligence of an operator, a longshoreman of a winch that calls the sling to come down too fast into the barge and striking the petitioner and injuring him.

The equipment was used before and after this occurrence without any trouble whatsoever.

And the same thing is true with the facts as established from the record in Mascuilli, because the Trial Court in that case found in the findings of fact number 35 that the operational negligence of the winch operators in operating the guide, the winches that had detached the guidelines in such a manner that they became taut and causing a breakage of the equipment striking the Mascuilli and killed him.

So, it was done so instantaneously that the officer had no opportunity to give a warning.

So, the case is on all force and we submit that Mascuilli is the posture of the issue here and answers the question very clearly to us that operational negligence occurring at the time of the injury makes the ship instantaneously unseaworthy.

Warren E. Burger:

Even if it's not on board, the ship or having anything directly to do with the ship.

H. Alva Brumfield:

Even if it has nothing to do with the ship, the ship owner has no knowledge of it, didnt own it, had no control of it as was held in Patterson, may it please Your Honor in the Landmark case, the Court held that that was no defense and that it made the ship unseaworthy.

Now, the Fifth Circuit has and the Ninth, I believe have been straining nuts and hairsplitting and attempting to apply a time element to make the negligent act exist to such an extent that the -- it would ripen into an unseaworthiness condition.

And the decisions just are not reconcilable at all.

And we submit that the reason that theyve got themselves on these horns of dilemma is because they failed to follow fundamental principles and guidelines that this Court has annunciated over the years.

Unseaworthiness can be caused by no negligence at all.

The structural defects, unseaworthiness can be caused by a non negligent act as Mr. Justice Black in Walden where the jury found that the order given by the mate to move the rope by two instead of three or four seaman was not negligent yet this case held that the question of unseaworthiness should be submitted to the jury even though the jury had found that that act itself was not negligent.

Unseaworthiness can be caused by negligent acts and unseaworthiness can be called by negligent acts which occur at the same time and make the ship instantaneously unseaworthy.

Now, this Court has never, never required that there be a showing that time must elapse from the negligent act until the occurrence of the unseaworthiness.

This Court has never done that.

In Mahnich, this Court held that the act of the seaman in choosing the rotten rope instead of the good rope created unseaworthiness.

In Crumady, Mr. Justice Douglas held that the act of setting the electrical cutoff device incorrectly created unseaworthiness.

Warren E. Burger:

Were those cases on ship board or on the docks or the piers?

H. Alva Brumfield:

On -- Mahnich was a seaman, Crumady was a longshoreman both on ship but in Gutierrez, Mr. Justice White, it occurred on the dock where the beans spilled out of defective containers holding that that caused unseaworthiness to the ship.