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Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. v. Overseas Oil Carriers Inc.

decided: April 25, 1977.


Appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Gerard Goettel, Judge, granting summary judgment and denying appellant recovery of fuel expenses incurred when its vessel diverted from her course to provide emergency medical care to a crewman aboard appellee's ship. Reversed.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Lumbard and Van Graafeiland, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Chief Judge:

The perils and hardships of the sea have been notorious since the voyages of Odysseus. Although the age of sirens and cyclopes is past, the isolation and uncertainty of maritime life continue to create unique problems for sailors and courts of admiralty. In this case, we must decide whether the owner of a vessel that alters course to come to the aid of a stricken seaman aboard a ship without medical staff, may recover additional fuel costs caused by the diversion. Under the circumstances of this case, we believe application of equitable principles requires reimbursement of such expenses. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's decision to the contrary.


A brief discussion of the facts, which were stipulated below, will facilitate understanding the issues raised on this appeal. The S.T. OVERSEAS PROGRESS is an American flag tanker of approximately 13,030 gross tons and a maximum speed of about 13.8 knots (15.9 mph). Her owner, Overseas Oil Carriers, is an American corporation with its principal place of business in New York. On July 4, 1973, the OVERSEAS PROGRESS was traveling in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, en route from Haifa, Israel to Baltimore. Suddenly, the ship's fireman, William Turpin, was stricken with severe chest pains. The OVERSEAS PROGRESS did not have a doctor aboard. Her officers, suspecting that the 63-year-old seaman had suffered a heart attack, aided Turpin as best they could. Guided by the ship's medical books and radio advice from the Public Health Service, they administered several morphine injections to relieve Turpin's severe pain and gave him glycerin nitrate tablets. Nonetheless, Turpin's condition did not improve. During the evening of July 5, 1973, he suffered another attack, again accompanied by severe chest pains.

Realizing that his vessel's resources were inadequate to deal with Turpin's increasingly serious condition, the Captain of the OVERSEAS PROGRESS, W. J. Lidwin, sent out a radio message calling for responses from all ships in the vicinity with doctors aboard. Three vessels answered the call. The nearest was the S.S. CANBERRA, a British flag passenger vessel.*fn1 The CANBERRA, with a maximum speed of 25 knots (approx. 28.8 mph) was considerably faster than the OVERSEAS PROGRESS, and was consequently able to convey Turpin more quickly to shore facilities. Moreover, the CANBERRA itself carried a hospital with a fully equipped operating room and medical personnel able to provide Turpin with immediate attention. At the time she received the OVERSEAS PROGRESS's call, the CANBERRA was en route to New York from Dakar, Senegal, traveling at 23 knots.

Realizing that the CANBERRA's position and equipment rendered it uniquely able to help the stricken seaman, the OVERSEAS PROGRESS directed a second radio message to the British liner, explaining that one of her crew members was in critical condition after suffering an apparent heart attack. The CANBERRA was requested to rendezvous with the OVERSEAS PROGRESS and provide treatment for the ailing seaman. In response to the distress call, the CANBERRA changed course and increased her speed to 25 knots. The OVERSEAS PROGRESS, which was already traveling at maximum speed, altered course to intercept the CANBERRA.

At that time the OVERSEAS PROGRESS was 740 miles from the nearest shore hospital, at St. John's Newfoundland. It would have taken the tanker, traveling at close to maximum speed, 57 hours to reach that destination. By contrast, the meeting of the CANBERRA and the OVERSEAS PROGRESS was achieved in 6 1/2 hours.

In the course of their radio communications, the masters of the CANBERRA and the OVERSEAS PROGRESS briefly considered the allocation of the rescue effort's costs. Captain Snowden of the CANBERRA informed Captain Lidwin that the CANBERRA's owner, the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P & O), "may look" to the owner of the OVERSEAS PROGRESS for "reimbursement of diversion costs, medical and out of pocket expenses." Captain Lidwin did not in any way indicate that such compensation would be refused. When the two ships met, Captain Snowden presented a letter reiterating the likelihood that P & O would seek reimbursement. This letter was then countersigned by Captain Lidwin. The parties have stipulated that this document was neither a demand for payment nor an agreement to reimburse the CANBERRA; rather, the ships' masters indicated an awareness of the problem and simply left open the question of payment for subsequent determination by the vessels' owners.

Upon encountering the OVERSEAS PROGRESS, the CANBERRA lowered one of her lifeboats and transferred William Turpin aboard. He was examined by the CANBERRA's surgeon, who diagnosed his illness as a myocardial infarction, a form of heart attack that results in the partial destruction of the central heart muscle. After taking Turpin aboard, the CANBERRA resumed her course to New York at maximum speed, 25 knots. Despite the fact that she had traveled an additional 232 miles to aid Turpin, the increased velocity enabled the CANBERRA to arrive in New York only 2 1/2 hours later than her scheduled arrival time. Turpin was rushed by ambulance to the United States Public Health Hospital on Staten Island. Eventually, he recovered and was discharged.

Overseas Oil Carriers, the owner of the OVERSEAS PROGRESS, promptly paid $248 to the CANBERRA's surgeon for medical expenses rendered to Turpin. But it was far less generous in responding to P & O's request for reimbursement. In response to P & O's letter of September 26, 1973, seeking $12,108.95 for Turpin's accommodation and nursing while on the CANBERRA and, principally, for the additional fuel consumed by the liner as a result of the extra distance traveled and the increased speed the CANBERRA had required to reach New York without serious delay, Overseas Oil Carriers's agent, in a letter dated October 3, declined to pay any part of this amount. Although, the agent wrote, "we are extremely grateful for the kind assistance you have rendered Mr. Turpin", he continued to assert that payment of the claim would be out of keeping with the "traditional concept of rescue at sea."

On April 26, 1974, P & O filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York, seeking recovery of the $12,108.95 it had requested previously. The parties each moved for summary judgment on stipulated facts. In an opinion dated August 20, 1976, Judge Goettel granted recovery of $500 for nursing services but denied any reimbursement for the CANBERRA's additional fuel expenses. He noted that under traditional admiralty doctrines of "salvage", there could be no reward for "pure life salvage", i.e. a rescue at sea where men's lives are saved but property is not simultaneously recovered. Judge Goettel also rejected any claim based on "quasi-contract" because he failed to find "misconduct or fault" by Overseas Oil Carriers. He did, however, grant recovery for nursing services since Overseas would have been obliged to pay such costs if Turpin had been placed in a shore hospital. We believe, that the CANBERRA, in saving the life of ...

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