Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company v. United States

PETITIONER: Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Beaumont Mills

DOCKET NO.: 65
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 372 US 597 (1963)
ARGUED: Feb 18, 1963
DECIDED: Apr 01, 1963

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 18, 1963 in Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company v. United States

Earl Warren:

Number 65, Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company, Petitioner, versus United States.

Mr. Rolph.

Henry R. Rolph:

May it please the Court.

Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Court.

My name is Henry Rolph.

I'm here representing the petitioner, Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company.

This case is a proceeding in admiralty and as an outgrowth of an action which was commenced in the United States District Court of the Northern District of California.

It developed from a mutual fault collision between two vessels.

One vessel, the F.E. Weyerhaeuser owned by Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company and the other vessel, United States Army Dredge Pacific operated by the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army.

The collision occurred on September 8, 1955 in the area near Coos Bay, Oregon.

The Weyerhaeuser was proceeding outbound from Coos Bay and the Dredge Pacific was on a opposing course and they both -- collision -- vessels came into collision.

Negotiations were conducted to attempt to explore the possibility of a settlement.

A settlement was impossible and the case was tried before Honorable Michael J. Roach in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

At the conclusion of the trial, the Court held that both vessels were at fault and entered a decree dividing the damages pursuant to the historic admiralty rule.

However, prior to the commencement of the action on the principal collision litigation, a suit had been filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington by one Reynold E. Ostrom who was a seaman employee of the United States employed on the U.S. Army Dredge Pacific.

He had received compensation from the Government in a minor amount, to be exact of $329.01.

He was precluded under the terms of the Federal Employees' Compensation Act from proceeding directly against the Government.

He commenced his action against Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company in the State of Washington and that action was held up pending the decision on the principal collision action.

At the conclusion of the collision action, a special hearing was held before the U.S. District Judge, Judge Roach on whether or not damages paid to Mr. Ostrom by Weyerhaeuser were includable in the overall damages resulting from the collision.

Now, in this connection, the suit filed by Ostrom, the government employee against Weyerhaeuser had been compromised for an agreed payment of $16,000.

The Government agreed that the amount of the settlement was reasonable but did not stipulate or agreed to the fact that it should be included in the overall damages resulting from the collision.

So that at the conclusion of the District Court case, the case was concluded for all practical purposes with the exception of this one item of damages.

Now, this is an extremely important point because -- as it -- it comes up in a case where the figures are relatively small but I think that it's incumbent upon me to present to the Court the overall importance of what is involved here because if this doctrine which was ultimately determined to be the doctrine of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in this case should be permitted to be the law of the country, then and in that event, you'll have a situation where a private vessel comes into collision with a government vessel and should -- if there is a substantial loss of life or great personal injury as there was in the collision between the United States Navy Hospital Ship, Benevolence and the private vessel, Mary Luckenbach where 15 Government employees were killed and 85 were seriously injured, you have a tremendous potential liability against the private vessel under the doctrine as concluded by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Now, to back up a minute on the history of the case, Judge Roach held that the $16,000 item of damages was merely another item of damages and was to be included in the overall damages resulting from the collision and applying the admiralty rule, it would be divided by two.

Now, the Government protested that.

They requested a rehearing on the subject before Judge Roach.

The rehearing in the District Court was denied.

The matter was then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by the Government and the case was heard before the Ninth Circuit and an order was entered ruling that the Federal Employees' Compensation Act was paramount and that the payments which the Government made pursuant to the Compensation Act were exclu -- the exclusive limit of their liability.

So that we have here before us now for the first time a case where there's an attempt to make an exception to the divided damages rule which has existed since the beginning of time on these admiralty maritime collision cases.

Now, it's our argument of course that the --