Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539 (1960)

Author: Justice Harlan

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Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539 (1960)


In joining my Brother FRANKFURTER’s dissent, I wish to add a few words. I believe the Court’s decision not only finds no support in the past cases, but also is unjustified in principle, and is directed at ends not appropriately within our domain. The Second Circuit’s decision in Poignant v. United States, 225 F.2d 595, provides a useful point of departure for what I have to say.

In Poignant, the libellant, a crew member, slipped on a small piece of garbage lying in a passageway of the ship. The vessel lacked garbage chutes, and the garbage was pulled, in cans, through the passageway to a railing, where it was jettisoned. The Court of Appeals first expressed the view that any unseaworthy condition which existed had in all probability arisen after the voyage had commenced. It said, much as the Court now holds, that Alaska Steamship Co. v. Petterson, 347 U.S. 396, required it to apply a rule of absolute liability nonetheless. It then put, as the critical issue, the question whether the presence of some garbage in a public passageway constituted an unseaworthy condition, and, finding the matter to turn on an issue of fact, remanded the case for trial. However, it is important to note the manner in which the court dealt with the problem. Although, at the outset of the opinion, the allegedly unseaworthy condition was assumed to be the presence of garbage in a passageway, 225 F.2d at 597, the remand was in fact directed to the question whether the absence of garbage chutes rendered the vessel not reasonably fit for the voyage, and therefore unseaworthy. Id. at 598. This, of course, would be a condition going to the proper outfitting of the vessel for sea travel, and a clear case of initial unseaworthiness. In such event, the injury would have been the proximate result of that unseaworthiness, for it was by reason of the lack of chutes that garbage was carried through the passageways at all.

For me, this approach indicates the rule which should govern the case before us. Had the petitioner contended and proved that a properly outfitted trawler of this type should have had a particular device for unloading fish, or an alternative means of facilitating petitioner’s egress from the vessel, so that either the railing would not have been slippery or the petitioner would not have been required to use the railing in debarking, the case would have been governed by the absolute liability rule of Sandanger and its successors, and respondent’s opportunity to remove the spawn from the rail would properly be held immaterial. As the case is decided, however, we are told that, even though there is no claim that the vessel should have made different provisions for the unloading of its catch or the debarking of its crew, the shipowner is liable for an injury caused by a temporary unsafe condition arising from the normal operation of the vessel, not the result of fault or mismanagement of anyone on board, and which no one had a reasonable opportunity to remedy. Had there been negligence either in permitting the spawn to accumulate or in failing to remove it, the admiralty principles developed in the cargo cases, and taken over into personal injury cases, would warrant an imposition of liability, although, as to cargo damage, the Harter Act and the Carriage of goods by Sea Act would, of course, bar recovery. The Silvia, 171 U.S. 462. But where, as here, there is neither a claim that the vessel was initially unseaworthy, nor any showing of negligence, the imposition of liability seems to me borrowing from Judge Magruder, a "hard doctrine," "startlingly opposed to principle." 265 F.2d at 432.

The Court is not fashioning a rule designed to protect life, cf. Bullard v. Roger Williams Ins. Co., 4 Fed.Cas. 643, No. 2,122 at 646, for there appears no real basis for expectation that today’s decision will promote the taking of greater precautions at sea. See dissenting opinion of FRANKFURTER, J., ante, p. 557. The respondent is held liable without being told that there was something left undone which should have been done, for petitioner is not asked to show, as was the libellant in Poignant, that the vessel ought to have been outfitted differently, that is, in a fashion which would have prevented the dangerous condition from arising at all. Nor is the respondent permitted to show that such condition was not due to its fault.

The sole interest served by the Court’s decision is compensation. Such an interest is, of course, equally present in the case of an undoubted accident, where, under the Court’s ruling, no right of recovery is bestowed as it is in the present case. But, because of the Court’s inherent incapacity to deal with the problem in the comprehensive and integrated manner which would doubtless characterize its legislative treatment, cf. Dixon v. United States, 219 F.2d 10, 15, this arbitrary limitation is preserved. This internal contradiction in the rule which the Court has established only serves to highlight a more central point: it is not for a court, even a court of admiralty, to fashion a tort rule solely in response to considerations which underlie workmen’s compensation legislation, weighty as such considerations doubtless are as a legislative matter. Citation is not needed to remind one of the readiness of Congress to deal with felt deficiencies in judicial protection of the interests of those who go to sea. We should heed the limitations on our own capacity and authority. See Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Corp., 342 U.S. 282, 285-287.

I would affirm.


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Chicago: Harlan, "Harlan, J., Dissenting," Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539 (1960) in 362 U.S. 539 362 U.S. 571–362 U.S. 573. Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2018,

MLA: Harlan. "Harlan, J., Dissenting." Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539 (1960), in 362 U.S. 539, pp. 362 U.S. 571–362 U.S. 573. Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Harlan, 'Harlan, J., Dissenting' in Mitchell v. Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 U.S. 539 (1960). cited in 1960, 362 U.S. 539, pp.362 U.S. 571–362 U.S. 573. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2018, from