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decided: March 30, 1942.



Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Byrnes, Jackson

Author: Murphy

[ 315 U.S. Page 752]

 MR. JUSTICE MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The right of jury trial in civil cases at common law is a basic and fundamental feature of our system of federal jurisprudence which is protected by the Seventh Amendment. A right so fundamental and sacred to the citizen,

[ 315 U.S. Page 753]

     whether guaranteed by the Constitution or provided by statute, should be jealously guarded by the courts. The present case is a suit by petitioner under the Jones Act*fn1 for personal injuries sustained when he fell because the wrench he was using to tighten a nut slipped under the torque applied to it. We are called upon to determine whether on the evidence adduced by petitioner, and in contravention of accepted juridical standards, petitioner was wrongfully deprived of his statutory right to jury trial by the action of the trial court in dismissing his complaint,*fn2 thereby refusing to submit the case to a jury which had been duly empanelled to try it. In holding that petitioner had failed to prove facts sufficient to warrant submitting the issue of respondent's negligence to the jury, the trial court relied on the so-called simple tool doctrine. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. 119 F.2d 800. The novel questions thus presented in the administration of the Jones Act prompted us to grant certiorari. 314 U.S. 595.

Petitioner's testimony*fn3 is the complete answer to the question whether the case should have been taken from

[ 315 U.S. Page 754]

     the jury. The gist of that testimony is as follows: For three weeks prior to the accident, petitioner, an employee with twenty years' experience, had been serving as water-tender in charge of the fire-room on the "Dongan Hills," a ferryboat operated by respondent between Staten and Manhattan Islands in New York harbor. One of his duties was to change oil strainers. This was done about three times a week, and required the removal and replacement of a manifold head, housing the strainers, which was held in place by six studs and nuts. When the manifold was replaced, the nuts had to be very tight. The best tool to remove and to tighten the nuts was a straight end wrench fitting a 1 1/4' nut. Petitioner used an S-shaped end wrench of the proper size which was "well worn," "had seen a lot of service," was "a loose fit," and "had a lot of play on it." There was about one-sixteenth of an inch "play in the jaws; it was worn." The wrench was about eighteen inches long and the "play" at the end was "about an inch." Petitioner asked the chief engineer for a new wrench three times, the first request being when petitioner first had occasion to use the worn wrench to change an oil strainer, and the last, two or three days before the accident. In answer to this last request, the chief engineer "said for me [petitioner] to look in the tool closet and see if there was one in there; and I went up there and couldn't find any and I believe he said he sent an order out for one." The regular way of requisitioning needed tools was by a report to the chief engineer. All petitioner was supposed to do was order; he did not know what respondent kept in its storeroom. The "Dongan Hills" docked at Manhattan Island on the average of six or seven times each day. On the day of the accident, petitioner did not renew his request, but he did look in the chief engineer's tool set. He found no end wrench of the proper size, did not know if a Stillson wrench was there, but believed

[ 315 U.S. Page 755]

     that a monkey wrench was. A monkey wrench could "probably" be used on any nut. At the time of the accident, petitioner was using the worn, S-shaped, end wrench to tighten the nuts after changing the oil strainer. There was about five-eighths of an inch of thread on the studs, and petitioner had changed the wrench on one nut four times. As he started the fifth tightening, the wrench slipped, causing him to fall from the eighteen inch square platform on which he was standing to the catwalk eighteen inches below. In the course of the fall, petitioner sustained an injury to his right side, which struck an angle iron alongside the catwalk.

The Jones Act, in addition to giving injured seamen the right to trial by jury in actions arising under the Act, also incorporates "all statutes of the United States modifying or extending the common-law right or remedy in cases of personal injury to railway employees." Among such statutes is 45 U. S. C. ยง 51, which provides in part that a carrier is liable for "injury or death . . . by reason of any defect or insufficiency, due to its [the carrier's] negligence, in its cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track, roadbed, works, boats, wharves, or other equipment."

Although proof of negligence is an essential to recovery under the Jones Act, Kunschman v. United States, 54 F.2d 987; cf. Beadle v. Spencer, 298 U.S. 124, 128, contributory negligence and assumption of risk are not available defenses. The admiralty doctrine of comparative negligence applies. Socony-Vacuum Co. v. Smith, 305 U.S. 424. The salient points of petitioner's testimony, summarized above, made a sufficient showing to allow the jury to consider the issue of respondent's negligence. The wrench petitioner was using had become defective for the purpose for which ...

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