The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREEDMAN
Plaintiff seeks a new trial in this action brought under the Jones Act (46 U.S.C.A. § 688). The grounds assigned are that the verdict was against the evidence, against the weight of the evidence, and that the charge of the court was erroneous.
Plaintiff sued for personal injuries which he alleges he sustained on the defendant's tanker, S.S. Gulflion. He claims that he fell out of his bunk because its guard rail was so low or the mattress on it was so high that the guard rail gave him no adequate protection.
It is for the injuries alleged to have been sustained as a result of the second fall that the suit was brought. The most serious of these were constant headaches which have plagued plaintiff ever since and the setting off of a latent neurotic personality disorder, as a result of which he changed from a kindly, loving husband and father to one who struck his wife and was irritable and unpleasant to his child.
The ship's log and the weather bureau records show that the weather was clear and the sea was calm on both nights. Mr. Lavin agreed that the vessel was not rolling on either occasion.
Plaintiff admitted that he had come on board after he had had a few drinks ashore. He admitted that before the accident he was in the habit of drinking casually and 'now and then' got drunk; he claimed that after the accident he drank frequently. His wife testified tified that he had completely changed after the accident and was no longer the same man; he drank and became violent.
The defendant claimed that plaintiff had bumped against the dresser while staggering about in a drunken condition; that his cabin mate did not call any of the officers or members of the crew, some of whom were nearby in the engine room, because both he and plaintiff knew that plaintiff was not suffering from any injuries, but simply was intoxicated.
Defendant called as a witness Sergeant Mango, a police officer in the locality in New Jersey where plaintiff and his wife resided. This witness gravely challenged their credibility. He testified to complaints to the police and even criminal charges which the wife had made against her husband for mistreatment of her prior to the accident on the S.S. Gulflion, as a result of which she had left him and returned to her former home in England. In cross-examining Sergeant Mango plaintiff in effect accused him of making improper advances to plaintiff's wife, which the witness vigorously denied. On rebuttal plaintiff's wife, who had already given testimony in harmony with her husband's, claimed that Sergeant Mango had made improper advances to her; that he asked her to go out with him and she refused and threatened to inform her husband. She claimed not to remember the written complaints she lodged against her husband a year prior to the accident.
The foregoing is, of course, a partial description of the evidence, which was elaborate and detailed.
It is evident that Sergeant Mango's testimony and the court records seriously contradicted plaintiff's claim that he had gotten along harmoniously with his wife until the accident and that the subsequent quarrels stemmed from a change in his personality caused by the injury suffered on the S.S. Gulflion. But even more, it was visibly evident in the court room that the effort to meet this contradiction by attacking Sergeant Mango's character, which trailed off into a lame refusal to drink beer because of an unexpected teetotalism on the part of Mrs. Domeracki, offended the jury's sense of fair play. Defendant's counsel, of course, used this circumstance in his summation as proof of the lack of credibility of plaintiff and his wife.
The contention that the verdict was against the evidence and against the weight of the evidence is wholly untenable and is refuted by a bare narration of the salient facts.
It is in the circumstances thus briefly described that we turn to the principal contention, that a new trial should be granted because of error in the charge. It is claimed that the charge was erroneous and confusing because it did not make clear to the jury that plaintiff was entitled to recover if the negligence of the defendant or the unseaworthiness of its vessel was responsible in whole or in part for his injury. This, he claims, was caused by what the court said on proximate cause.
This case is a fresh illustration of the desirability of abandoning all use of the term 'proximate cause' in Jones Act cases. In its long history, 'proximate cause' has accumulated a number of meanings not intrinsically determinable from the label and even modern efforts at refining its meaning and casting it in simpler and more easily understood terms have not been conspicuously successful.
At least it would have been better, having mentioned the genie, if the court had not uncorked the bottle to liberate it with a definition. For undefined, its use without more is not substantial error. See Unto v. Moore-McCormack Lines, Inc., 293 F.2d 26 (3rd Cir., 1961). But proximate cause was defined early in the charge in terms of the natural and reasonably probable consequences of the act or omission complained of. (Charge, p. 7. See also 22 F.R.D. 127, 150, Form Civ. 30-A, and compare with it 28 F.R.D. 401, 435, Form Civ. 4.18 ...