451 U.S. 156 (1981), 79-512, Scindia Steam Navigation Co., Ltd. v. Santos

Docket Nº:No. 79-512
Citation:451 U.S. 156, 101 S.Ct. 1614, 68 L.Ed.2d 1
Party Name:Scindia Steam Navigation Co., Ltd. v. Santos
Case Date:April 21, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 156

451 U.S. 156 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 1614, 68 L.Ed.2d 1

Scindia Steam Navigation Co., Ltd.

v.

Santos

No. 79-512

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 1981

        Argued December 1, 1980

        CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

        THE NINTH CIRCUIT

        Syllabus

        Respondent longshoreman, an employee of respondent stevedore who was engaged by petitioner shipowner to load its vessel, was injured while working in the ship's hold when he was struck by cargo that fell from a pallet being held in suspension by a winch that was part of the ship's gear and was being operated by another longshoreman. The winch's braking mechanism allegedly had been malfunctioning for two days preceding the day of the accident, but there was a dispute as to whether the cargo fell because the suspended pallet was swinging back and forth or because the braking mechanism slipped while the pallet was suspended, and as to whether the shipowner knew or should have known of the alleged condition of the winch. Respondent longshoreman brought suit against petitioner under the provision of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act as amended in 1972, 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), which states that a longshoreman injured "by the negligence of a vessel . . . may bring an action against such vessel as a third party," and that the vessel's liability "shall not be based upon the warranty of seaworthiness." The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioner, holding that, under the negligence standards governing liability under § 905(b), a shipowner is not liable for dangerous conditions created by the stevedore's negligence while the stevedore is in exclusive control of the work, and that, even if petitioner knew or should have known of the defective winch, a shipowner has no duty to warn the stevedore or his employees of open and obvious defects. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, under the proper standard, petitioner had a duty to continue to inspect conditions of the vessel even if it had been turned over to the stevedore in safe condition, and that, if dangerous conditions subsequently developed, in light of the vessel's practical opportunities to discover and remedy the dangers, failure to do so could be negligence. Concluding that there were several material facts in dispute that were for a jury to resolve, the court remanded the case for further proceedings.

        Held:

        1. A shipowner has a duty to have the ship and its equipment in such

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condition that the stevedore may carry on its cargo operations with reasonable safety; and if the shipowner fails at least to warn the stevedore of hidden danger which was known to the shipowner, or should have been known to him in the exercise of reasonable care, he is liable if his negligence causes injury to a longshoreman. But once the stevedore's cargo operations have begun, absent contract provision, positive law, or custom to the contrary, the shipowner has no general duty under § 905(b) by way of supervision or inspection to exercise reasonable care to discover dangerous conditions that develop within the confines of the cargo operations that are assigned to the stevedore. Thus, the shipowner is not liable to the longshoremen for injuries caused by dangers unknown to the owner and about which he had no duty to inform himself. This conclusion is consistent with Congress' intent under the 1972 Amendments of the Act to foreclose the shipowner's previous faultless liability based on a theory of unseaworthiness or nondelegable duty. The shipowner, within limits, is entitled to rely on the stevedore, and owes no duty to the longshoreman to inspect or supervise cargo operations. Pp. 166-172.

        2. However, there are circumstances in which the shipowner has a duty to act where a danger to longshoremen arises from the malfunctioning of the ship's gear being used in cargo operations. In this case, it is possible that the stevedore's judgment in continuing to use the winch despite its malfunctioning was so obviously improvident that petitioner, if it knew of the defect and that the stevedore was continuing to use it, should have realized the winch presented an unreasonable risk of harm to the longshoremen, and that, in such circumstances, it had a duty to intervene and repair the winch. The same would be true if the defect existed from the outset and petitioner must be deemed to have been aware of its condition. The stevedore's duties under positive law to provide a safe workplace and to use safeguards with respect to the ship's gear, as well as the vessel's justifiable expectations that those duties will be performed, are relevant in determining whether the shipowner has breached its duty. But an equally necessary inquiry is whether the pertinent statutes, regulations, or custom place or assume a continuing duty on the vessel to repair defective ship's gear being used by the stevedore in the cargo operation. Here, the record supports the Court of Appeals' holding that there was a triable issue as to whether the shipowner had actual knowledge of the alleged failure in the winch's braking mechanism or was chargeable with knowledge because the winch was defective from the outset. Thus, the District Court erred in granting summary judgment, and the case should be

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returned to it and, if necessary, tried to a jury under appropriate instructions. Pp. 172-179.

        598 F.2d 480, affirmed and remanded.

        WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined except BURGER, C.J., who took no part in the decision of the case. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 179. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 180.

        WHITE, J., lead opinion

        JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

        Respondent Santos, a longshoreman and an employee of respondent Seattle Stevedore Co., was injured while he was helping load the M/S Jakaratna, a vessel owned by petitioner Scindia Steam Navigation Co., Ltd. He later brought an action against Scindia pursuant to § 5(b) of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (Act), as amended in 1972,1 which, as set forth in 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), provides in relevant part as follows:

In the event of injury to a person covered under this chapter caused by the negligence of a vessel, then such person, or anyone otherwise entitled to recover damages by reason thereof, may bring an action against such vessel as a third party in accordance with the provisions of section 933 of this title, and the employer shall not be liable to the vessel for such damages directly or indirectly and any agreements or warranties to the contrary

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shall be void. . . . The liability of the vessel under this subsection shall not be [101 S.Ct. 1618] based upon the warranty of seaworthiness or a breach thereof at the time the injury occurred. T he remedy provided in this subsection shall be exclusive of all other remedies against the vessel except remedies available under this chapter.2

        The District Court granted petitioner's motion for summary judgment;3 the Court of Appeals, disagreeing with the District Court on both the facts and the law, reversed and remanded for further proceedings. 598 F.2d 480 (CA9 1979). We granted certiorari, 446 U.S. 934, because the Courts of Appeals are in considerable disagreement as to the meaning and application of § 905(b).4

        I

        For present purposes, we take the facts from the opinion of the Court of Appeals, which properly viewed the case in the light most favorable to Santos, against whom summary judgment had been granted.

        On December 10, 1972, Seattle Stevedore Co., pursuant to its undertaking with Scindia, was engaged in loading a cargo of wheat into a hold of the M/S Jalaratna. A winch, part of the ship's gear, was being used to lower wooden pallets, each containing seventy 50-pound sacks of wheat, into the hold. Because of the location of the winch controls, the longshoreman operator relied on the hatch tender, another longshoreman,

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to signal him when to start and stop the winch while lowering a pallet of sacks into the hold. Santos and three other longshoremen were in the hold. Their task was to remove sacks of wheat from the pallet and properly stow them.

        On the day of the accident, as it had for the two previous days, the braking mechanism of the winch was malfunctioning in that it would not quickly stop the descent of a loaded pallet, which would continue to drop for several feet before coming to a stop. At the time important here, while a pallet was being lowered, the hatch tender signaled the winch operator to stop the descent of the load. The brake was applied, but the pallet did not stop before striking a pallet jack5 with some force and spilling about half the sacks of wheat from the pallet. The hatch tender signaled the operator to raise the pallet about 15 feet and, believing that the remaining sacks on the pallet were secure enough not to fall, permitted Santos and the other men to clear away the spilled sacks then lying below in the hold. Some minutes later, however, more sacks fell from the pallet, striking and injuring Santos. There was dispute as to whether the additional sacks fell because the suspended pallet was swinging back and forth or because, while the pallet was suspended, the braking mechanism slipped on three or four occasions, each time requiring the operator to raise it again, thus working loose the additional sacks that fell on Santos.

        Relying on the legislative history of the 1972 Amendments to the Act, the District Court held that the negligence standards governing the longshoreman's action against a shipowner...

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