American Stevedores v. Porello United States v. Lauro

Decision Date10 March 1947
Docket NumberNos. 69 and 514,s. 69 and 514
Citation67 S.Ct. 847,91 L.Ed. 1011,330 U.S. 446
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 446-448 intentionally omitted] Mr. Edward Ash, of New York City, for petitioner American stevedores.

Mr. Jacob Rassner, of New York City, for respondents Rosario Porello and Lauro.

Mr. J. Frank Staley, of Washington, D.C., for respondent the United states.

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, 33 U.S.C.A. §§ 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 U.S.C. § 781 et seq., 46 U.S.C.A. § 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. 2 Cir., 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 issue was not squarely posed in tha case we granted certiorari in order to determine it at this time. 328 U.S. 827, 66 S.Ct. 1013

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 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 Ad- miralty 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 dam ged by collision or other fault of Government vessels 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 as to property, nor does it appear that the speaker was at the time attentive to such possible distinctions. It is also true that the Committee report said that 'the chief purpose of this bill is to grant private owners of vessels and of merchandise a right of action when their vessels or goods have been damaged as the result of a collision with any Government-owned vessel.'13 However, in the same report a letter from the Attorney General was incorporated, which, while it was addressed to the predecessor bill, H.R. 6989, serves, in the absence of contradiction by the report, as an indication of the Committee's opinion on the intended effect of the act. That letter explicitly stated that 'The proposed bill intends to give the same relief against the Government for damages * * * caused by its public vessels * * * as is now given against the United States in the operation of its merchant vessels, as provided by the suits in admiralty act of March 9, 1920.' As the right to sue for personal injuries under the Suits in Admiralty Act was clear, it may be inferred, at least as strongly as the opposite is implied by Mr. Underhill's remarks, that the Committee understood that the Act would provide a remedy to persons suffering personal injuries as well as property damage.14 Moreover, when the bill reached the floor of the Senate there was not the least indication that the members of that body believed that the Act limited relief to owners of damaged property.15

The passage of the Suits in Admiralty Act, the Public Vessels Act, and the Federal Tort Claims Act16 attests to the growing feeling of Congress that the United States should put aside its sovereign armor in cases where federal employees have tortiously caused personal injury or property damage. To hold now that the Public Ves- sels Act does not provide a remedy against the United States for personal injuries would in the future only throw this form of maritime action under the Federal Tort Claims Act; for that Act excepts from its coverage 'Any claim for which a remedy is provided by the Act * * * of March 3, 1925 (The Public Vessels Act) (U.S.C., title 46, secs. 781-790, inclusive) * * *.'17 We cannot believe that the Public Vessels Act, read in the light of its legislative history evinces a Congressional intent only to provide a remedy to the owners of damaged property.

This determination does not dispose of all the issues raised by the Porello case. When impleaded by the United States in the trial court, American, the petitioner here, pleaded as an affirmative defense that Porello, having accepted compensation payments from American, lost whatever right of action he had against the United States as a third party tortfeasor. The petitioner admits that § 33(b) of the Longshoremen's Act was amended in 1938 so that mere acceptance of compensation, without an award, does not operate as an assignment to the employer of the injured employee's cause of action against a third party tortfeasor, a conclusion which courts had reached under the former wording of the Act.18 But it contends that the amendment did no more, and that acceptance of compensation still operates as a conclusive election not to sue. It is quite clear that mere acceptance of compensation is not the kind of election for which provision is made by § 33(a) of the Act, which provides for notice of intention to the deputy commissioner,19 so the argument is technically imperfect. But in any event, election not to sue a third party and assignment of the cause of action are two sides of the same coin. Surely the Act was never intended and has never been held to provide that after acceptance of...

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2 books & journal articles
  • Salvaging a Capsized Statute: Putting the Public Vessels Act Back on Course
    • United States
    • Georgia State University College of Law Georgia State Law Reviews No. 29-2, December 2012
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    ...general contract suits), with Thomason v. United States, 184 F.2d 105 (9th Cir. 1950) (opposite). 12. See Am. Stevedores, Inc. v. Porello, 330 U.S. 446, 454 (1947) (extending the PVA to claims for personal injuries caused by a public vessel when a ship's beam fell into the hold and struck a......
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