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Roeder v. Alcoa Steamship Co.

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT


decided: February 3, 1970.

ROBERT ROEDER
v.
ALCOA STEAMSHIP CO., INC., APPELLANT

Hastie, Chief Judge, and Van Dusen and Adams, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen

Opinion OF THE COURT

VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from the District Court's order of January 3, 1969, granting summary judgment to a seaman suing for wrongfully withheld wages.

The District Court's order was based on the facts alleged in the defendant's affidavit.*fn1 Plaintiff Robert Roeder was employed as a seaman aboard defendant's SS Alcoa Master, having joined the crew on February 24, 1965, for a voyage pursuant to foreign articles. On July 2, 1965, Roeder and fellow seaman Colson were painting the deck. Due to extremely offensive conduct of Roeder,*fn2 Colson understandably told the boatswain that he did not wish to continue working with Roeder, and immediately retired to his room. The Chief Mate, being informed of the incident, ordered Colson back to work. He "instructed both men to stay out of each other's way and to do nothing further that would disrupt the harmony then existing. The Chief Mate specifically ordered Roeder to leave Colson alone and to do nothing that would cause any further dispute or trouble." Within minutes after this order, the two men "had an altercation" in which "blows were struck by both parties;" the fight was "precipitated" by Roeder. The Chief Mate, upon learning of the fight, reported the incident and attending circumstances to the vessel's Master, who logged both men "for engaging in a fight in willful disobedience of the Chief Mate's order." The log entry as to Roeder read:

"July 4, 1965. Robert M. Roeder is logged one day's pay in the amount of $13.85. Fighting aboard Ship P.M. July 2nd.

A. Ohren

Master

"KE Graham [Chief Mate]

Affg

"July 4, 1965. The above entry read and copy given Robert Roeder and his reply is as follows:

NO REPLY

A. Ohren

Master

KE Graham

Affg"

When plaintiff signed off the ship on September 14, 1965, § 13.85, pursuant to the log entry, was withheld from his wages.

The plaintiff instituted suit on June 9, 1967, to recover the withheld wages and a penalty, pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 596 (1964).*fn3 He moved for summary judgment on June 24, 1968. The court granted the plaintiff's motion and, calculating the period during which such wages were wrongfully withheld to be 1171 days,*fn4 entered judgment for the plaintiff in the amount of $32,450.55.*fn5 The defendant appeals.

Defendant asserts that the wages were properly deducted pursuant to 46 U.S.C. § 701 (1964), which provides:

"Whenever any seaman * * * commits any of the following offenses, he shall be punished as follows:

"Fourth. For willful disobedience to any lawful command at sea * * * by forfeiture from his wages of not more than four days' pay * * *."

In response to this defense, the plaintiff asserts two propositions: (1) that Johnson v. Isbrandtsen Co., 190 F.2d 991 (3rd Cir. 1951), aff'd. 343 U.S. 779, 72 S. Ct. 1011, 96 L. Ed. 1294 (1952), protects a seaman from deduction of wages for fighting, even if such fighting is in direct violation to a specfic command given at sea, and (2) that the log entry, stating simply that Roeder was fined for "fighting," cannot be later explained to mean "fighting in disobedience to a lawful order given at sea." We reject both propositions.

In Johnson v. Isbrandtsen, supra, Johnson, without justification, stabbed a fellow crew member. The shipowner withheld from Johnson's wages the cost to it of diverting the ship and of treating the crew member's wound. This court affirmed a judgment for Johnson, holding that deductions from wages were only proper if they fit within the enumerated provisions of 46 U.S.C. § 701. Since Johnson had never been given an order, the court held that Johnson had not violated § 701(4), saying: "paragraph four provides a penalty for disobedience to specific commands and is not intended to relate to the general discipline on shipboard." 190 F.2d at 993.

We agree with the plaintiff that general orders relating to discipline of the ship cannot justify a withholding for fighting. As this court recognized in Johnson v. Isbrandtsen,

"Under the best of conditions many voyages result in tensed nerves and sharpened animosities. Assaults, though usually not of a dangerous character, occur occasionally on shipboard." 190 F.2d at 993.

But this does not mean that a ship's officers are powerless to prevent fights. Where a ship's officer has reason to believe that two seamen will fight if left together, he may order them to stay apart. If the order is given as a "specific command," then the men are obligated to follow it, or else suffer the penalties prescribed by § 701(4).

In the instant case, as alleged in the defendant's affidavit, Colson understandably refused to work with Roeder. From Roeder's conduct, the Chief Mate reasonably supposed that the two men would fight if left together. Therefore, he "specifically ordered Roeder to leave Colson alone and to do nothing that would cause any further dispute or trouble." Roeder willfully disobeyed this order in precipitating a fight only moments later. Under these circumstances, the order was justified, and the penalty assessed against Roeder for disobeying the order was warranted.

We agree that in cases of this type log entries should be given great weight. Congress has specifically provided that in the absence of a proper log entry, including prompt notification to the offender that a charge is being made, the court, in its discretion, may exclude evidence of the offense. 46 U.S.C. § 702.*fn6 The reason for this rule is to prevent possible prejudice to the seaman. Requiring prompt entry of the charge insures that the Master cannot later allege as a basis for a penalty a prior incident, so insignificant that no charge was made at the time of its commission, in retaliation for some later action of the seaman that cannot be punished.*fn7 In addition, without prompt notification of the charge, a seaman may, in the course of a long voyage, forget attending circumstances that would afford him a defense.*fn8

In the instant case, Roeder was informed two days after the incident that he was being charged with an offense, and that his penalty was the loss of one day's pay. He was given an opportunity to reply, and he had ample opportunity to gather evidence in his defense. Because the statutory protection was given, evidence of the offense could not be excluded.*fn9

Therefore, the ship owner is not bound by the exact wording of the log entry in the light of defendant's affidavit explaining it, although its wording will be given great weight by any fact finder in determining the actual reason that Roeder was fined. See, e.g., Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. v. Smith, 179 F.2d 672, 675 (5th Cir. 1950).*fn10

The District Court's order of January 3, 1969, filed January 6, 1969, will be reversed. Because it appears that there remains a genuine issue of fact as to whether Roeder was fined simply for fighting or for fighting in willful disobedience to a lawful order of the Chief Mate,*fn11 the case will be remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


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