462 U.S. 523 (1983), 82-131, Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. v. Pfeifer

Docket Nº:No. 82-131.
Citation:462 U.S. 523, 103 S.Ct. 2541, 76 L.Ed.2d 768
Party Name:JONES & LAUGHLIN STEEL CORPORATION, etc., Petitioner, v. Howard E. PFEIFER.
Case Date:June 15, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 523

462 U.S. 523 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 2541, 76 L.Ed.2d 768

JONES & LAUGHLIN STEEL CORPORATION, etc., Petitioner,

v.

Howard E. PFEIFER.

No. 82-131.

United States Supreme Court.

June 15, 1983

Argued Feb. 28, 1983.

[103 S.Ct. 2543] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

Respondent was injured in the course of his employment while employed by petitioner as a loading helper on petitioner's coal barge. The injury made respondent permanently unable to return to his job or to perform other than light work. Respondent brought an action in Federal District Court against petitioner, alleging that his injury had been "caused by the negligence of the vessel" within the meaning of § 5(b) of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA). The District Court found in respondent's favor and awarded damages of $275,881.31, holding that receipt of compensation from petitioner under § 4 of the LHWCA did not bar a separate recovery of damages for negligence. In calculating the damages, the court did not increase the award to take inflation into account nor did it discount the award to reflect the present value of the future stream of income. Instead, the court followed a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which had held "as a matter of law that future inflation shall be presumed equal to future interest rates with these factors offsetting." The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. A longshoreman may bring a negligence action under § 5(b) against the owner of a vessel who acts as his own stevedore, even though the longshoreman has received compensation from the owner-employer under § 4. The plain language of § 5(a), which provides that the liability of an employer for compensation prescribed in § 4 "shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability of such an employer to the employee," appears to support petitioner's contention that since, as respondent's employer, it had paid compensation to him under § 4, § 5(a) absolves it of all other responsibility to respondent for damages. But such contention is undermined by the plain language of § 5(b), which authorizes a longshoreman whose injury is caused by the negligence of a vessel to bring a separate action against such a vessel as a third party, unless the injury was caused by the negligence of persons engaged in providing stevedoring services to the vessel. If § 5(a) had been intended to bar all negligence suits against owner-employers, there would have been no need to put an additional sentence in § 5(b) barring suits against owner-

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employers for injuries caused by fellow servants. And the history of the LHWCA further refutes the contention that § 5(a) bars respondent's suit under § 5(b). Pp. 2546-2548.

2. The District Court, in performing its damages calculation, erred in applying the theory of the Pennsylvania decision as a mandatory federal rule of decision. Pp. 2555-2558.

(a) The two elements that determine the calculation of a damages award to a permanently injured employee in an inflation-free economy are the amount that the employee would have earned during each year that he could have been expected to work after the injury, and the appropriate discount rate, reflecting the safest available investment. Pp. 2548-2551.

(b) In an inflationary economy, inflation should ideally affect both stages of the [103 S.Ct. 2544] calculation described above. This Court, however, will not at this time select one of the many rules proposed by the litigants and amici in this case and establish it for all time as the exclusive method in all federal courts for calculating an award for lost earnings in an inflationary economy. First, by its very nature the calculation of an award for lost earnings must be a rough approximation. Second, sustained price inflation can make the award substantially less precise. And third, the question of lost earnings can arise in many different contexts. Pp. 2551-2555.

(c) Respondent's cause of action is rooted in federal maritime law, and thus the fact that Pennsylvania has adopted the total offset rule for all negligence cases in that forum is not of controlling importance in this case. Moreover, the reasons that may support the adoption of the rule for a State's entire judicial system are not necessarily applicable to the special class of workers covered by the LHWCA. P. 2555.

(d) In calculating an award for a longshoreman's lost earnings caused by a vessel's negligence, the discount rate should be chosen on the basis of the factors that are used to estimate the lost stream of future earnings. If the trier of fact relies on a specific forecast of the future rate of price inflation, and if the estimated lost stream of future earnings is calculated to include price inflation along with individual factors and other societal factors, then the proper discount rate would be the after-tax market interest rate. But since specific forecasts of future price inflation remain too unreliable to be useful in many cases, it will normally be a costly and ultimately unproductive waste of longshoremen's resources to make such forecasts the centerpiece of litigation under § 5(b). On the other hand, if forecasts of future price inflation are not used, it is necessary to choose an appropriate below-market discount rate. As long as inflation continues, the amount of the "offset" against the market rate should be chosen on the basis of the same factors that are used to

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estimate the lost stream of future earnings. If full account is taken of the individual and societal factors (excepting price inflation) that can be expected to have resulted in wage increases, then all that should be set off against the market interest rate is an estimate of future price inflation. P. 2556.

(e) On remand, whatever rate the District Court may choose to discount the estimated stream of future earnings, it must make a deliberate choice, rather than assuming that it is bound by a rule of state law. P. 2558.

678 F.2d 453 (3 Cir.1982), vacated and remanded.

COUNSEL

Robert W. Murdoch argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief wasDaniel R. Minnick.

Jerome M. Libenson argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.*

* Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General McGrath, Deputy Solicitor General Geller, Richard G. Wilkins, and Jeffrey Axelrad for the United States; by John T. Biezup, Michael D. Brophy, and E.D. Vickery for Alcoa Steamship Co. et al.; and by Robert C. Wert and Norman Hegge, Jr., for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

Raymond J. Conboy filed a brief for the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union as amicus curiae.

Robert W. Murdoch, Pittsburgh, Pa., for petitioner.

Jerome M. Libenson, Pittsburgh, Pa., for respondent.

OPINION

STEVENS, Justice.

Respondent was injured in the course of his employment as a loading helper on a coal barge. As his employer, petitioner was required to compensate him for his injury under § 4 of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (the Act). 44 Stat. 1426, 33 U.S.C. § 904. As the owner pro hac vice of the barge, petitioner may also be liable for negligence under § 5 of the Act. 86 Stat. 1263, 33 U.S.C. § 905. We granted certiorari to decide whether petitioner may be subject to both forms of liability, and also to consider whether the Court of Appeals correctly upheld the trial court's computation of respondent's damages.

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Petitioner owns a fleet of barges that it regularly operates on three navigable rivers in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Respondent was employed for 19 years to aid in loading and unloading those barges at [103 S.Ct. 2545] one of petitioner's plants located on the shore of the Monongahela River. On January 13, 1978, while carrying a heavy pump, respondent slipped and fell on snow and ice that petitioner had negligently failed to remove from the gunnels of a barge. His injury made him permanently unable to return to his job with the petitioner, or to perform anything other than light work after July 1, 1979.

In November 1979, respondent brought this action against petitioner, alleging that his injury had been "caused by the negligence of the vessel" within the meaning of § 5(b) of the Act. The District Court found in favor of respondent and awarded damages of $275,881.31. The court held that receipt of compensation payments from petitioner under § 4 of the Act did not bar a separate recovery of damages for negligence.

The District Court's calculation of damages was predicated on a few undisputed facts. At the time of his injury respondent was earning an annual wage of $26,065. He had a remaining work expectancy of 121/2 years. On the date of trial (October 1, 1980), respondent had received compensation payments of $33,079.14. If he had obtained light work and earned the legal minimum hourly wage from July 1, 1979 until his 65th birthday, he would have earned $66,350.

The District Court arrived at its final award by taking 121/2 years of earnings at respondent's wage at the time of injury ($325,312.50), subtracting his projected hypothetical earnings at the minimum wage ($66,352) and the compensation payments he had received under § 4 ($33,079.14), and adding $50,000 for pain and suffering. The court did not increase the award to take inflation into account, and it did not discount the award to reflect the present value of the future stream of income. The Court instead decided to follow a decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which had held

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"as a matter of law that future inflation shall be presumed equal to future interest rates with these factors offsetting." Kaczkowski v. Bolubasz, 491 Pa. 561, 583, 421 A.2d 1027, 1038-1039 (1980). Thus, although the District Court did not dispute that respondent could be expected to receive regular cost-of-living wage increases from the...

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