Harris v. Pa. R. Co.

50 F.2d 866 (4th Cir. 1931)



Equally clear is the obligation upon the part of the ship to save the life of a sailor who falls overboard through a misadventure, not uncommon in his dangerous calling. It is absurd to admit the duty to extend aid in the lesser emergency, and to deny it in the greater. In both cases, it is implied in the contract that the ship shall use every reasonable means to save the life of a human being who has no other source of help. The universal custom of the sea demands as much wherever human life is in danger. The seaman's contract of employment requires it as a matter of right.


An action at law was brought in the District Court by administratrix of the estate of Ernest L. Harris against the defendant Pennsylvania Railroad Company, to recover damages for his death while in the defendant's employ as a deck hand on a car float of the defendant then engaged in transporting certain railroad cars. The gist of the action is that the death of Harris was the direct result of negligence on the part of the officers and agents of the defendant, engaged as fellow members of the crew with him at the time of his death. The defendant made a motion for a directed verdict in its behalf, which was granted by the district judge as there was no evidence from which the jury could reasonably conclude that more diligent action on the defendant's part would have saved their comrade's life. On appeal, the decision was reversed.


Did defendant owe the deceased a duty to rescue him from his peril and was there negligence on the part of the crew in failing to perform it? 




Obvious facts lead the court to conclude that there was evidence of neglect on the part of the crew, and further that it was for the jury to decide whether the man could have been saved if due diligence had been used. The deceased, even when last seen, was within 200 feet of the point at which a life ring, if promptly thrown, would have rested on the surface of the water. He was evidently making every possible effort to save himself. Whether in any event he would have succeeded is not a certainty, but in our view there was enough testimony tending to show a reasonable probability of rescue, had a life ring or heaving line been used, to justify the submission of the question to the jury.

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