CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT.
Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Byrnes, Jackson
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
S. S. Unicoi was a vessel owned by the United States Maritime Commission and operated for it by respondent under a contract covering this and other vessels. The contract*fn1 recites that it was made pursuant to § 707 (c) of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 (49 Stat. 2009, 46 U. S. C. § 1197 (c); see § 704, 46 U. S. C. § 1194), the Commission having advertised the line for charter and having failed to receive satisfactory bids. Respondent is a private corporation, none of whose stock is owned directly or indirectly by the United States.
The deceased was a United States customs inspector. While boarding the vessel on his official duties in July 1938, a rung of the ladder which he was climbing broke. The injuries which resulted caused his death. At the time of the injury the vessel was docked at a pier in New York City.
Petitioner, the widow, sued as administratrix to recover damages for the benefit of herself and the children. That suit was brought in the New York Supreme Court but removed to the federal District Court. Respondent moved to dismiss on the authority of Johnson v. Emergency Fleet Corp., 280 U.S. 320. That motion was denied and a trial to a jury on the law side of the court was had. A verdict for petitioner was returned. On appeal the judgment was reversed with directions to dismiss the complaint, one judge dissenting. The Circuit Court of Appeals stated in reaching that result that the Suits in Admiralty Act (41 Stat. 525, 46 U. S. C. §§ 741, 742) as construed by the decision in the Johnson case made the remedies afforded by that Act the exclusive ones, viz. a libel in personam against the United States or the Maritime Commission. 128 F.2d 169. We granted the petition for a writ of certiorari because of the public importance of the problem.
We agree with the court below that this was a maritime tort over which the admiralty court has jurisdiction. Vancouver S. S. Co. v. Rice, 288 U.S. 445; The Admiral Peoples, 295 U.S. 649. And we may assume that petitioner could have sued either the United States or the Commission under the Suits in Admiralty Act. In any event, such a suit would be the exclusive remedy in admiralty against either of them. Eastern Transportation Co. v. United States, 272 U.S. 675; Emergency Fleet Corp. v. Rosenberg Bros. & Co., 276 U.S. 202. And it is likewise clear that the action in admiralty afforded by § 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act is the only available remedy against the United States or a corporation whose entire outstanding capital stock is owned by the United States or its representatives. Johnson v. Emergency Fleet Corp., supra. The sole question here is whether the Suits in Admiralty Act makes private operators such as respondent non-suable for their torts.
There is ample support for the holding in the Johnson case that § 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act was intended to provide the only available remedy against the United States or its wholly owned corporations for enforcement of maritime causes of action covered by the Act. But there is not the slightest intimation or suggestion in the history of that Act that it was designed to abolish all remedies which might exist against a private company for torts committed during its operation of government vessels under agency agreements.
Sec. 1 of the Suits in Admiralty Act provides that no vessel owned by the United States or a governmental corporation or "operated by or for the United States, or such corporation" shall be "subject to arrest or seizure by judicial process in the United States or its possessions." That section was designed to avoid the inconvenience, expense and delay resulting from the holdings in The Florence H., 248 F. 1012, and The Lake Monroe, 250 U.S. 246, that libel in rem would lie against vessels owned by the United States. See S. Rep. No. 223, 66th Cong., 1st Sess.; H. Rep. No. 497, 66th Cong., 2d Sess. The wording of that section makes clear that the right to arrest or seize the vessel was taken away whether the vessel was operated by the United States or its wholly owned corporation or for either of them by a private company. To that extent the Act affects remedies which would otherwise exist on maritime causes of action arising out of operation of government vessels by private companies for the United States or its wholly owned corporations. Yet there is no indication whatsoever that it went further and took away any personal remedy which a tort claimant might have against such a private operator. While § 1 abolishes the right to arrest or seize the vessel, § 2 provides that "a libel in personam may be brought against the United States or against such corporations" in cases where "if such vessel were privately owned or operated . . . a proceeding in
admiralty could be maintained." Sec. 2, however, does not mention private operators. Nor do the Committee Reports advert to private operators, except as they may be affected by § 1. The liability of an agent for his own negligence has long been embedded in the law. Quinn v. Southgate Nelson Corp., 121 F.2d 190, is a recent application of that principle to a situation very close to the present one. But the principle is an ancient one and applies even to certain acts of public officers or public instrumentalities. As stated in Sloan Shipyards Corp. v. Emergency Fleet Corp., 258 U.S. 549, 567, "An instrumentality of government he might be and for the greatest ends, but the agent, because he is agent, does not cease to be answerable for his acts." In that case the Fleet Corporation was held to be amenable to suit. And that policy has been followed. For when it comes to the utilization of corporate facilities*fn2 in the broadening phases of federal activities in the commercial or business field, immunity from suit is not favored. Keifer & Keifer v. Reconstruction Finance Corp., 306 U.S. 381; Federal Housing Administration v. Burr, 309 U.S. 242. Congress adopted that policy when it made corporations wholly owned by the United States suable on maritime causes of action under § 2 of the Suits in Admiralty Act. That it had the power to grant or withhold ...