330 U.S. 446 (1947), 69, American Stevedores, Inc. v. Porello

Docket Nº:No. 69
Citation:330 U.S. 446, 67 S.Ct. 847, 91 L.Ed. 1011
Party Name:American Stevedores, Inc. v. Porello
Case Date:March 10, 1947
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 446

330 U.S. 446 (1947)

67 S.Ct. 847, 91 L.Ed. 1011

American Stevedores, Inc.

v.

Porello

No. 69

United States Supreme Court

March 10, 1947

Argued December 11, 12, 1946

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. The Public Vessels Act, 43 Stat. 1112, which provides that a "libel in personam in admiralty may be brought against the United States . . . for damages caused by a public vessel of the United States," authorizes a libel against the United States to recover damages for death or personal injuries caused by a public vessel of the United States. Pp. 450-454, 458-460.

2. Mere acceptance by an injured longshoreman of compensation from his employer pursuant to the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 901-950, without an award by a deputy commissioner under § 19, does not preclude the longshoreman from thereafter electing to sue a third-party tortfeasor for injuries suffered while working on a vessel. Pp. 454-456.

3. A stevedoring contract being a maritime contract, an admiralty court has jurisdiction to grant indemnity under an indemnity provision thereof. P. 456.

4. A district court awarded indemnity to the extent of half of the damages under an ambiguous indemnity provision of a stevedoring contract without admitting evidence as to the intention of the parties or making any clear finding as to the meaning of the contract. On appeal, the circuit court of appeals held that the stevedoring contractor should indemnify the owner completely. On review in this Court, the case is remanded to the district court for determination of the meaning of the contract, since the district court may have the benefit of such evidence as there is upon the intention of the parties. Pp. 457-458.

153 F.2d 605, affirmed in part and reversed in part.

No. 69. A longshoreman injured while working on a public vessel of the United States as an employee of a corporation engaged in loading the vessel under a stevedoring contract with the United States filed a libel to recover damages from the United States under the Public

Page 447

Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. § 781 et seq. The District Court overruled the Government's exceptions to the libel. 53 F.Supp. 569. The Government then impleaded the stevedoring contractor charging it with fault and setting forth an indemnity provision of the contract. The contractor answered the libel, denying fault and asserting as an affirmative defense that, by accepting compensation payments under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 901-950, the longshoreman had lost his right to sue a third-party tortfeasor. The District Court held that the longshoreman was not barred from maintaining the action, and that both the United States and the contractor were negligent, awarded damages from the United States, and awarded the United States contribution from the contractor as a joint tortfeasor to the extent of half the damages less the compensation payments received by the longshoreman. On cross-appeals by the United States and the contractor, the Circuit Court of Appeals held that the contractor was bound by the indemnity provision of the stevedoring contract to make the United States completely whole, and affirmed the decree with that modification. 153 F.2d 605. This Court granted certiorari. 328 U.S. 827. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded, p. 458.

No. 514. A District Court awarded damages against the United States under the Public Vessels Act, 46 U.S.C. § 781 et seq., for the death of a longshoreman resulting from injuries sustained while working aboard a vessel owned by the United States. 63 F.Supp. 538. On appeal, the Circuit Court of Appeals, 157 F.2d 416, certified to this Court a question which is answered as follows:

The word "damages," as used in 46 U.S.C. § 782, includes damages under §§ 130-134 of the Decedent Estate Law of the State of New York recoverable by a personal representative because of the death of a human being.

P. 460.

Page 448

REED, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

Porello, a longshoreman, was injured in 1942 while working in the hold of the U.S.S. Thomas Stone, a public vessel of the United States. His employer, American Stevedores, Inc. (called American hereinafter), was engaged in loading the vessel under a stevedoring contract with the United States. Within two weeks of the accident which caused the injuries, American's insurance carrier, in compliance with § 14 of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act,1 33 U.S.C. §§ 901-950, and without the compulsion of an award of compensation by a deputy commissioner under § 19, began compensation payments to Porello, who negotiated the checks he received. In March of 1943, Porello gave notice in accordance with § 33(a) of election to sue the United States as a third-party tortfeasor, rather than to receive compensation. In the same month, he filed a libel, amended in November, 1943, to recover damages from the United States under the Public Vessels Act of 1925,2 46

Page 449

U.S.C. § 781 et seq., for the injuries to his person sustained in the accident. Exceptions to the libel being overruled, the United States answered, denying fault on its part and claiming sovereign immunity from suit. Later, by a petition charging American with fault and setting forth an indemnity provision of the stevedoring contract, the United States impleaded American.3 American then answered the libel, denying fault and asserting as an affirmative defense that, by accepting compensation payments, Porello had lost his right to sue a third party tortfeasor.

The District Court held that Porello was not barred from maintaining the action. At trial, it appeared that a beam lying athwart a hatch had fallen into he hold and struck Porello, causing the injuries complained of. The court held that the United States was negligent in not providing a locking device on the end of the beam, and held that American was negligent through its foreman, whose orders to the operator of a cargo boom caused the beam to be dislodged. Porello was awarded damages from the United States, the United States to receive contribution from American as a joint tortfeasor to the extent of half the damage less the compensation payments received by Porello. On cross-appeals by the United States and American, the Circuit Court of Appeals held that American was bound by the indemnity provision of the stevedoring contract to make the United States completely whole. With that modification, it affirmed the decree below. 153 F.2d 605. The important issue in this proceeding is whether the Public Vessels Act makes the United States liable for damages on account of personal injuries. The Circuit Court of Appeals thought that this question was decided by the Canadian Aviator case,4 but, since the

Page 450

issue was not squarely posed in that case, we granted certiorari in order to determine it at this time. 328 U.S. 827

The Public Vessels Act provides that a "libel in personam in admiralty may be brought against the United States . . . for damages caused by a public vessel of the United States. . . ."5 Petitioner argues that the Act only provides [67 S.Ct. 850] a remedy for damage to property. "Damages," however, have historically been awarded both for injury to property and injury to the person -- a fact too well known to have been overlooked by the Congress in enacting this statute.6 Nor is it easy to conceive any reason, absent intent to the contrary, not to have inserted the word "property" in the statute, an obvious method of imposing the limitation for which the petitioner here contends. Petitioner nonetheless argues that the legislative history of the statute conclusively shows that the congressional intent was to limit redress to property damage.

The history of the Act may be briefly detailed. Starting in 1920, various bills were introduced which provided for liability of the Government to suit for damages caused by its vessels.7 We need only consider, however, the bills that were pending in the 68th Congress by which the present act was passed: H.R. 6989, H.R. 9075 and H.R. 9535. The first provided for suits against the United States "for damages caused by collision by a public vessel." The second, designed as an amendment to the Suits in Admiralty

Page 451

Act, and supported by the Maritime Law Association of the United States,8 would have amended that act so that it would not be limited to vessels operated by the Government as merchant vessels, and would thus have made the United States unquestionably liable to suit for personal injuries caused by public vessels.9 This bill never reached the floor of Congress. The third bill, H.R. 9535, was enacted and became the present Public Vessels Act. Although "designed as a substitute for H.R. 6989,"10 it omitted the words "by collision" which would have limited the liability of the United States to damages resulting from collisions by public vessels. The only discussion of any significance to the present inquiry related to the last of these bills. It is true, as petitioner points out, that the proponent of the bill in the House, Mr. Underhill, said, when the bill was introduced:

The bill I have introduced simply allows suits in admiralty to be brought by owners of vessels whose property has been damaged by collision or other fault of Government vessels

Page 452

and Government agents.11

Further, on inquiry as to whether suit could be brought only where blame was charged to the Government, he answered: "Not entirely; where a man's property is damaged, he can bring a suit."12 These statements were not, however, answers to questions whether the Act would provide a remedy for injury to the person as well...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP