512 U.S. 92 (1994), 93-670, Howlett v. Birkdale Shipping Co.

Docket Nº:No. 93-670
Citation:512 U.S. 92, 114 S.Ct. 2057, 129 L.Ed.2d 78, 62 U.S.L.W. 4491
Party Name:HOWLETT v. BIRKDALE SHIPPING CO., S. A.
Case Date:June 13, 1994
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 92

512 U.S. 92 (1994)

114 S.Ct. 2057, 129 L.Ed.2d 78, 62 U.S.L.W. 4491

HOWLETT

v.

BIRKDALE SHIPPING CO., S. A.

No. 93-670

United States Supreme Court

June 13, 1994

Argued April 20, 1994

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner Howlett, a longshoreman employed by stevedore Northern Shipping Co., was injured when he slipped and fell on a sheet of clear plastic that had been placed under bags he was discharging from a cargo hold on a ship owned and operated by respondent Birkdale Shipping Co. He filed suit against Birkdale under § 5(b) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, which requires shipowners to exercise ordinary care to maintain a ship and its equipment in a condition so that an expert and experienced stevedore can load and unload cargo with reasonable safety. As a corollary to this "turnover duty," a shipowner must warn the stevedore of latent hazards that are known or should be known to the shipowner. Here, the evidence showed that the vessel had supplied the plastic to the loading stevedore in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and that that stevedore had placed it under the bags, even though this was improper. Howlett charged that Birkdale was negligent in failing to warn Northern and its employees of this dangerous condition. The District Court granted Birkdale summary judgment, finding that Howlett had not demonstrated that Birkdale had actual knowledge of the hazardous condition, and that the condition was not open and obvious. It declined to infer such knowledge from the fact that the vessel had supplied the Guayaquil stevedore with the plastic or that the vessel's crew was present during the loading operation. Even if the plastic's improper use was apparent to the crew in Guayaquil, the court added, then it was also an open and obvious condition for which Howlett could not recover. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. A vessel's turnover duty to warn of latent defects in the cargo stow is narrow. As a general rule, the duty to warn attaches only to hazards that are not known to the stevedore and that would be neither obvious to, nor anticipated by, a skilled stevedore in the competent performance of its work. Scindia Steam Na v. Co. v. De los Santos, 451 U.S. 156,167. Subjecting vessels to suit for injuries that could be so anticipated would upset the balance Congress was careful to strike when it amended the Act in 1972 to shift more of the responsibility for compensating injured longshoremen to stevedores, who are best able to avoid accidents

Page 93

during cargo operations. In addition, absent a vessel's actual knowledge of a hazard, the turnover duty attaches only if the exercise of reasonable care would place upon the vessel an obligation to inspect for or discover the hazard's existence. Contrary to Howlett's submission, however, the exercise of reasonable care does not require a vessel to supervise the ongoing operations of the loading stevedore or other stevedores handling the cargo before it arrives in port, or to inspect the completed stow, to discover hazards in the cargo stow. Pp. 96-105.

2. The District Court erred in resting summary judgment on the ground that the vessel had no actual knowledge of the hazard leading to Howlett's injury. Some crew members, who might have held positions such that their knowledge should be attributed to the vessel, might have observed the plastic being placed under the bags during the loading process. The court's additional theory that the condition would have been open and obvious to the stevedore during unloading had it been obvious to the crew may also prove faulty, being premised on the vessel's state of affairs during loading, not discharge. Of course, the vessel may be entitled to summary judgment, since there is evidence that the plastic was visible during unloading, and since Howlett must demonstrate that the alleged hazard would not have been obvious to, or anticipated by, a skilled and competent stevedore at the discharge port. Pp. 105-106.

998 F.2d 1003, vacated and remanded.

Charles Sovel argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Stanley B. Gruber.

Carl D. Buchholz III argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Michael P. Zipfel.[*]

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under § 5(b) of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), a shipowner must exercise ordinary care to maintain the ship and its equipment in a

Page 94

condition so that an expert and experienced stevedore can load and unload cargo with reasonable safety. As a corollary to this duty, the shipowner must warn the stevedore of latent hazards, as the term is defined in maritime law, that are known or should be known to the shipowner. This case requires us to define the circumstances under which a shipowner must warn of latent hazards in the cargo stow or cargo area.

I

The case arrives after a grant of summary judgment to respondent Birkdale Shipping Co., S. A., so we consider the facts in the light most favorable to petitioner Albert Howlett. Howlett, a longshoreman employed in the Port of Philadelphia by stevedore Northern Shipping Co., was injured while discharging bags of cocoa beans from a cargo hold on the MV Presidente Ibanez, a ship owned and operated by Birkdale. During the unloading operation, Howlett and three other longshoremen hooked up a draft, or load, of bags stowed on the tween deck of the hold. When the ship's boom lifted the draft out of the hold, an 8-square-foot area of the tween deck was exposed. Howlett, who was standing on surrounding bags, jumped down about three feet to the deck, where he slipped and fell on a sheet of clear plastic that had been placed under the cargo. As a result of his fall, Howlett sustained serious injuries that have disabled him from returning to work as a longshoreman.

Howlett brought suit against Birkdale under § 5(b) of the Act. Both parties agreed that it is customary to lay paper and plywood on a steel deck to protect a stow of cocoa beans against condensation damage. They also agreed that, for purposes of protecting the beans, it was improper to use plastic, which tends to aggravate condensation damage rather than prevent it. Evidence adduced during pretrial proceedings suggested that the independent stevedore engaged by Birkdale to load the beans in Guayaquil, Ecuador, had placed the plastic on the tween deck. Further evidence

Page 95

showed that the vessel had supplied the Guayaquil stevedore with the plastic, along with other material used in stowing cargo, including paper, plywood, and dunnage. Howlett claimed that before jumping to the deck he did not see the plastic, which was covered by dirt and debris. He charged that Birkdale was negligent in failing to warn Northern and its longshoremen-employees of this dangerous condition.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of Birkdale. Relying upon Derr v. Kawasaki Kisen K. K., 835 F.2d 490 (CA3 1987), cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1007 (1988), the court held that Howlett, to prevail on his failure-to-warn claim, had to demonstrate that Birkdale had actual knowledge of the hazardous condition and that the condition was not open and obvious. After reviewing the record, the court concluded that Howlett had failed to present evidence sufficient to sustain his claim. The court declined to infer that Birkdale had actual knowledge of the condition from the fact that it had supplied the Guayaquil stevedore with the plastic, reasoning that "being the supplier of equipment does not necessarily imply knowledge of its intended purpose." App. to Pet. for Cert. 4a. The court further declined to infer actual knowledge from the fact that the members of the vessel's crew were present on the top deck during the loading operation. And even if the Guayaquil stevedore's improper use of plastic had been apparent to the crew, the court continued, "then it readily transpires that this was an open and obvious condition" for which Howlett could not recover. Ibid. The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion, judgt. order reported at 998 F.2d 1003 (CA3 1993).

We granted certiorari, 510 U.S. 1039 (1994), to resolve a conflict among the Circuits regarding the scope of the shipowners' duty to warn of latent hazards in the cargo stow, an inquiry that depends in large part upon the nature of the shipowners' duty to inspect for such defects. Compare Derr v. Kawasaki Kisen K. K., supra (vessel need not inspect or

Page 96

supervise the loading stevedore's cargo operations for the benefit of longshoremen in later ports), with Turner v. Japan Lines, Ltd., 651 F.2d 1300 (CA9 1981) (vessel must supervise a foreign stevedore's loading operations), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 967 (1982).

II

The Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 44 Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., establishes a comprehensive federal workers' compensation program that provides longshoremen and their families with medical, disability, and survivor benefits for work-related injuries and death. See generally T. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law § 6-6 (1987); M. Norris, Law of Maritime Personal Injuries §§ 4:11, 4:22-4:29 (4th ed. 1990). The injured longshoreman's employer—in most instances, an independent stevedore, see Edmonds v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 443 U.S. 256, 263-264 (1979)—must pay the statutory benefits regardless of fault, but is shielded from any further liability to the longshoreman. See 33 U.S.C. §§ 904, 905(a); Norris, supra, §§ 4:7-4:10.

The longshoreman also may seek damages in a third-party negligence action against the owner of the vessel on which he was injured, and may do so without forgoing statutory compensation if he follows certain procedures. See Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co., 505 U.S. 469 (1992)....

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP