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decided: June 23, 1958.



Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker

Author: Warren

[ 357 U.S. Page 221]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether a state court may apply its two-year statute of limitations to bar an unseaworthiness action that is joined with an action for negligence under the Jones Act.

Petitioner was a member of the crew of a vessel owned and operated by respondent. His back was injured Oct. 19, 1950, when he slipped and fell down a stairway leading from the lounge to the galley. He reported the injury, and the ship's log book supports his allegation that the steps were wet. At the termination of the voyage petitioner consulted a doctor about the pain and

[ 357 U.S. Page 222]

     stiffness in his back. Intermittent medical attention failed to arrest a deteriorating condition. In March 1953, a specialist in orthopedics diagnosed the difficulty as ruptured discs between the vertebrae. By July 6, 1953, petitioner could no longer perform his duties aboard respondent's vessel, and on that date he entered a United States Public Health Marine Hospital as an injured seaman. After his discharge he consulted an attorney and this state-court action was filed Aug. 27, 1953, in the District Court of Dallas County, Texas.

Petitioner claimed damages under the Jones Act for negligence*fn1 and under the general maritime law for unseaworthiness. He also asked for maintenance and cure under the general maritime law. He alleged that the portholes and deck at the head of the stairs were not watertight, that they allowed water to accumulate on the stairs, and that this condition was the proximate cause of his fall. Respondent's answer denied the allegations of negligence and unseaworthiness, and averred that petitioner's claims were barred by the pertinent statutes of limitations and by laches. The trial court ruled that the actions were not barred, and after hearing evidence submitted all three claims to the jury.*fn2 The jury returned special verdicts importing the following findings: Petitioner was injured while attempting to walk down the stairs in question; the portholes and deck above and near

[ 357 U.S. Page 223]

     the stairs were not watertight; these defects were not due to the negligence of respondents; and the condition did not make the vessel unseaworthy.*fn3 Pursuant to these findings, the trial court entered judgment for respondent on the Jones Act and unseaworthiness counts, and awarded petitioner $6,258 for maintenance and cure.

Both parties appealed to the Texas Court of Civil Appeals. Respondent sought to overturn the award for maintenance and cure, but the trial court's decision in that respect was affirmed and that portion of the case is not before us. Petitioner took no appeal from the judgment so far as it concerned his claim under the Jones Act, so that portion of the case is also outside the scope of our review. Limiting his appeal to the unseaworthiness aspect of his case, petitioner assigned errors in admitting evidence and in instructing the jury. The Court of Civil Appeals found it unnecessary to rule upon these questions, for in its opinion the unseaworthiness action was barred by the two-year Texas statute of limitations pertaining to actions for personal injuries.*fn4 290 S. W. 2d 313. The Texas Supreme Court refused petitioner's application for writ of error. In view of the importance of this ruling for maritime personal injury litigation in the state courts, we granted petitioner's motion for leave

[ 357 U.S. Page 224]

     to proceed in forma pauperis, and granted certiorari. 352 U.S. 1000.

In the view we take of this case it is unnecessary for us to decide the broad question of whether a state court is free to apply its own statutes of limitation to an admiralty right of action for which no special limitation is prescribed, or whether it is bound to determine the timeliness of such actions by the admiralty doctrine of laches.*fn5 For the reasons stated hereafter, we simply hold that where an action for unseaworthiness is combined with an action under the Jones Act a court cannot apply to the former a shorter period of limitations than Congress has prescribed for the latter. We think this is so whether the action is at law or in admiralty, in the state or the federal courts.

The appropriate period of limitations for this action must be determined with an eye to the practicalities of admiralty personal injury litigation. When a seaman is injured he has three means of recovery against his employer: (1) maintenance and cure, (2) negligence under the Jones Act, and (3) unseaworthiness. Without elaborating on the nature of these three actions, it is sufficient to say that they are so varied in their elements of proof, type of defenses, and extent of recovery that a seaman will rarely forego his right to ...

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