Cooper Stevedoring Company, Inc v. Fritz Kopke, Inc 8212 726

Decision Date28 May 1974
Docket NumberNo. 73,73
Citation417 U.S. 106,40 L.Ed.2d 694,94 S.Ct. 2174
PartiesCOOPER STEVEDORING COMPANY, INC., Petitioner, v. FRITZ KOPKE, INC., et al. —726
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

A longshoreman was injured when, while loading a vessel owned by one respondent and time chartered to the other (hereinafter collectively the Vessel), he stepped into a concealed gap between crates which had previously been loaded by petitioner. The longshoreman then sued the Vessel, which filed a third-party complaint against petitioner. The District Court found both the Vessel and petitioner negligent, and divided the liability equally. On petitioner's appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed. Held: The award of contribution between joint tortfeasors in a noncollision maritime case was proper under the circumstances. On the facts, no countervailing considerations detract from the well-established maritime rule allowing contribution between joint tortfeasors, since where the longshoreman, not being an employee of petitioner, could have proceeded against either the Vessel or petitioner, or both, and thus could have elected to make petitioner bear its share of the damages, there is no reason why the Vessel should not be accorded the same right. Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282, 72 S.Ct. 277, 96 L.Ed. 318, distinguished. Pp. 110—115.

Sessions v. Fritz Kopke, Inc., 5 Cir., 479 F.2d 1041, affirmed.

Joseph D. Cheavens, Houston, Tex., for petitioner.

Dixie Smith, Houston, Tex., for respondents.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the extent to which contribution between joint tortfeasors may be obtained in a maritime action for personal injuries. The S.S. Karina, a vessel owned and operated by respondent Fritz Kopke, Inc., and under time charter to respondent Alcoa Steamship Co., was loaded at Mobile, Alabama, with palletized crates of cargo by petitioner Cooper Stevedoring Co. The vessel then proceeded to the Port of Houston where longshoremen employed by Mid-Gulf Stevedores, Inc., began to load sacked cargo. The Houston long-shoremen had to use the top of the tier of creates loaded by Cooper as a floor on which to walk and stow the Houston cargo. One of these longshoremen, Troy Sessions, injured his back when he stepped into a gap between the creates which had been concealed by a large piece of corrugated paper.

Sessions brought suit in the District Court against Kopke and Alcoa (hereinafter collectively the Vessel) seeking to recover damages for his injuries.1 The Vessel filed a third-party complaint against Cooper alleging that if Sessions was injured by any unseaworthy condition of the vessel or as the result of negligence other than his own, such condition or negligence resulted from the conduct of Cooper and its employees. The Vessel also filed a similar third-party complaint against Mid-Gulf.

Prior to trial, Mid-Gulf and the Vessel apparently entered into an agreement under which Mid-Gulf would indemnify the Vessel against any recovery which Sessions might obtain. Pursuant to this agreement, Mid-Gulf was dismissed as a third-party defendant and Mid- Gulf's attorneys were substituted as counsel for the Vessel.2

The case then went to trial, after which the District Court, which sat without a jury, orally announced its findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court found that the Vessel's failure either to make adequate arrangements to assure that the stow would not move and leave spaces in the course of its trip from Mobile to Houston or to put some type of dunnage on top of the stow had resulted in an unsafe place to work and unseaworthy condition. The court found that Cooper was also negligent in not stowing the creates in a manner in which longshoremen at subsequent ports could safely work on top of them. Finding it difficult from the evidence to 'evaluate exactly the responsibility between the shipowner on the one hand and Cooper on the other,' the District Court divided the liability equally between the Vessel and Cooper.3 Judg- ment was entered allowing Sessions to recover $38,679.90 from the Vessel and allowing the Vessel to recover $19,339.95 from Cooper.

Cooper appealed,4 asserting that the District Court's award of contribution in a noncollision maritime case was in direct conflict with this Court's decisions in Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282, 72 S.Ct. 277, 96 L.Ed. 318 (1952), and Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Erie Lackawanna R. Co., 406 U.S. 340, 92 S.Ct. 1550, 32 L.Ed.2d 110 (1972). The Court of Appeals rejected this contention, relying on prior decisions of the Fifth and Second Circuits to the effect that the apparent prohibition against contribution in noncollision maritime cases announced in Halcyon and Atlantic was inapplicable where the joint tortfeasor against whom contribution is sought is not immune from tort liability by statute. See Horton & Horton, Inc. v. T/S J. E. Dyer, 428 F.2d 1131 (CA5 1970), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 993, 91 S.Ct. 461, 27 L.Ed.2d 441 (1971); Watz v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 431 F.2d 100 (CA5 1970); In re Seaboard Shipping Corp., 449 F.2d 132 (CA2 1971), cert. denied, 406 U.S. 949, 92 S.Ct. 2038, 32 L.Ed.2d 337 (1972). The Court of Appeals found this principle applicable here since Sessions, in addition to suing the Vessel, could have proceeded directly against Cooper as the latter was not his employer and, therefore, not shielded by the limited liability of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. § 905, 479 F.2d 1041 (CA5 1973). We granted certiorari to consider this question, 414 U.S. 1127, 94 S.Ct. 864, 38 L.Ed.2d 752 (1974), and now affirm.

Where two vessels collide due to the fault of each, an admiralty doctrine of ancient lineage provides that the mutual wrongdoers shall share equally the damages sustained by each. In The North Star, 106 U.S. 17, 1 S.Ct. 41, 27 L.Ed. 91 (1882), Mr. Justice Bradley traced the doctrine back to the Laws of Ole ron which date from the 12th century, and its roots no doubt go much deeper. Even though the common law of torts rejected a right of contribution among joint tortfeasors, the principle of division of damages in admiralty has, over the years, been liberally extended by this Court in directions deemed just and proper. In one line of cases, for example, the Court expanded the doctrine to encompass not only damage to the vessels involved in a collision, but personal injuries and property damage caused innocent third parties as well. See, e.g., The Washington, 9 Wall. 513, 19 L.Ed. 787 (1870); The Alabama, 92 U.S. 695, 23 L.Ed. 763 (1876); The Atlas, 93 U.S. 302, 23 L.Ed. 863 (1876); The Chattahoochee, 173 U.S. 540, 19 S.Ct. 491, 43 L.Ed. 801 (1899). See generally The Max Morris, 137 U.S. 1, 8—11, 11 S.Ct. 29, 30—32, 34 L.Ed. 586 (1890). In other cases, the Court has recognized the application of the rule of divided damages in circumstances not involving a collision between two vessels, as where a ship strikes a pier due to the fault of both the shipowner and the pier owner, see Atlee v. Packet Co., 21 Wall. 389, 22 L.Ed. 619 (1875), or where a vessel goes aground in a canal due to the negligence of both the shipowner and the canal company, see White Oak Transp. Co. v. Boston, Cape Code & New York Canal Co., 258 U.S. 341, 42 S.Ct. 338, 66 L.Ed. 649 (1922). See also The Max Morris, supra, 137 U.S., at 13—14, 11 S.Ct., at 32—33. Indeed, it is fair to say that application of the rule of division of damages between joint tortfeasors in admiralty cases has been as broad as its underlying rationales. The interests of safety dictate that where two parties 'are both in fault, they should bear the damage equally, to make them more careful.' The Alabama, supra, 92 U.S., at 697. And a 'more equal distribution of justice' can best be achieved by ameliorating the common-law rule against contribution which permits a plaintiff to force one of two wrongdoers to bear the entire loss, though the other may have been equally or more to blame. See The Max Morris, supra, 137 U.S., at 14, 11 S.Ct., at 32.

Despite the occasional breadth of its dictum, our opinion in Halcyon should be read with this historical backdrop in mind. Viewed from this perspective, and taking into account the fectual circumstances presented in that case, we think Halcyon stands for a more limited rule than the absolute bar against contribution in noncollision cases urged upon us by petitioner.5

In Halcyon, a ship repair employee was injured while making repairs on Halcyon's ship. He sued Halcyon for damages, alleging negligence and unseaworthiness. Since the employee was covered by the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 901—950, he was prohibited from suing his employer Haenn. Nevertheless Halcyon impleaded Haenn as a joint tort- feasor seeking contribution for the judgment recovered by the employee. We granted certiorari in Halcyon to resolve a conflict which had arisen among the circuits as to whether a shipowner could recover contribution in these circumstances. See 342 U.S., at 283—284, and n. 3, 72 S.Ct., at 278—279. One court had held that the employer's limitation of liability vis-a -vis its employee under the Harbor Workers' Act barred contribution. See American Mutual Liability Insurance Co. v. Matthews, 182 F.2d 322 (CA2 1950). Another Circuit had held that the Act did not bar contribution, see United States v. Rothschild Int'l Stevedoring Co., 183 F.2d 181 (CA9 1950), and yet a third Circuit, in the case reviewed in Halcyon, had permitted contribution but limited it to the amount which the injured employee could have compelled the employer to pay had he elected to claim compensation under the Act. 187 F.2d 403 (CA3 1951).

Before this Court, both parties in Halcyon agreed that 'limiting an employer's liability for contribution to those uncertain amounts recoverable under the Harbor Workers' Act is...

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