Admiralty – Wrongful Death Statutes – Use of State Law

Petitioner’s decedent, a carpenter, was employed by a contractor hired to repair the Bonneville Dam, which is owned and operated by the United States. During the course of his employment, decedent was drowned when the boat he was in capsized in the water below the dam. Petitioner sued the United States in federal district court under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that the accident was caused by the negligence of employees of the United States who were operating the dam. The claim was based on the Oregon Wrongful Death Statute and on the Oregon Employer’s Liability Law, which, in certain circumstances, permits recovery for death if defendant employer did not “use every device, care and precaution which it is practicable to use for the protection and safety of life and limb.” The district court held there was no negligence, and therefore no liability under the Wrongful Death Statute, and that the Employer’s Liability Law did not apply because the use of the high standard of care established by the law would be unconstitutional. The court of appeals affirmed on the ground that there had not been any negligence and that the Employer’s Liability Law “could not be constitutionally applied to this case.” On certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States, held, reversed and remanded, two justices dissenting. When courts applying maritime law adopt state wrongful death statutes, state substantive law is followed, even when the state standard of care is higher than the duty imposed by maritime law. Hess v. United States, 361 U.S. 314 (1960).