Edmonds v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique

Decision Date27 June 1979
Docket NumberNo. 78-479,78-479
Citation61 L.Ed.2d 521,443 U.S. 256,99 S.Ct. 2753
PartiesStanley D. EDMONDS, Petitioner, v. COMPAGNIE GENERALE TRANSATLANTIQUE
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner longshoreman, while employed by a stevedoring concern that respondent shipowner had engaged to unload cargo from its vessel, was injured in the course of that work, and received benefits for the injury from his employer under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (Act). Petitioner also brought this negligence action against respondent in Federal District Court, wherein the jury determined that petitioner was responsible for 10% of the total negligence resulting in his injury, that the stevedore's fault, through a coemployee's negligence, contributed 70%, and that respondent was accountable for 20%. Following established maritime law, the District Court reduced the award to petitioner by the 10% attributed to his own negligence but refused further to reduce the award against respondent in proportion to the fault of the stevedore-employer. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the 1972 Amendments to the Act had altered the traditional admiralty rule by making the shipowner liable only for that share of the total damages equivalent to the ratio of its fault to the total fault.

Held:

1. Under the 1972 Amendments to the Act, Congress did not intend to change the judicially created admiralty rule that the shipowner can be made to pay all the damages not due to the plaintiff's own negligence by imposing a proportionate-fault rule. Pp. 263-271.

(a) There is no conflict between the provisions of the Amendments that (1) in the event of injury to a person covered by the Act "caused by the negligence of a vessel," such person may bring an action against the vessel as a third party, and the employer shall not be liable to the vessel for such damages directly or indirectly and any agreements or warranties to the contrary shall be void, and (2) if such person was employed by the vessel to provide stevedoring services, no such action shall be permitted if the injury was "caused by the negligence of persons engaged in providing stevedoring services to the vessel." The first provision addresses the recurring situation, such as in this case, where the party injured by the vessel's negligence is a longshoreman employed by a stevedoring concern, and does not purport to modify the traditional admiralty rule. The second provision applies only to the less familiar arrangement where the ship is its own stevedore, and is to construed as permitting a third-party suit against the shipowner-stevedore when negligence in its nonstevedoring capacity contributes to the injury. Pp. 263-266.

(b) The legislative history does not support the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the statute, which modifies the longshoreman's pre-existing rights against the negligent vessel. Pp. 266-268.

(c) While some inequity appears inevitable in the present statutory scheme, and while the Court of Appeals' proportionate-fault rule may remove some of the inequities, nevertheless it creates others and appears to shift some burdens to the longshoreman. There is nothing to indicate and it will not be presumed that Congress intended to place the burden of the inequity on the longshoreman whom the Act seeks to protect. Pp. 268-271.

2. Nor will this Court change the traditional rule so as to make the vessel liable only for the damages in proportion to its own negligence. By now changing what Congress understood to be the law and did not itself wish to modify, this Court might knock out of kilter the delicate balance effected by Congress concerning the liability of vessels, as third parties, to pay damages to longshoremen who are injured while engaged in stevedoring operations. This Court should stay its hand in these circumstances. Pp. 271-273.

4 Cir., 577 F.2d 1153, reversed and remanded.

Calvin W. Breit, Norfolk, Va., for petitioner.

Charles F. Tucker, Norfolk, Va., for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE, delivered the opinion of the Court.

On March 3, 1974, the S.S. Atlantic Cognac, a containership owned by respondent, arrived at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal, Va. Petitioner, a longshoreman, was then employed by the Nacirema Operating Co., a stevedoring concern that the shipowner had engaged to unload cargo from the vessel. The longshoreman was injured in the course of that work, and he received benefits for that injury from his employer under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. 44 Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. In addition, the longshoreman brought this negligence action against the shipowner in Federal District Court.

A jury determined that the longshoreman had suffered total damages of $100,000, that he was responsible for 10% of the total negligence resulting in his injury, that the stevedore's fault, through a co-employee's negligence, contributed 70%, and that the shipowner was accountable for 20%.1 Following an established principle of maritime law, the District Court reduced the award to the longshoreman by the 10% attributed to his own negligence.2 But also in accordance with maritime law, and the common law as well, the court refused further to reduce the award against the shipowner in proportion to the fault of the employer.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, with two judges dissenting, reversed en banc, holding that the 1972 Amendments to the Act, 86 Stat. 1251, had altered the traditional admiralty rule by making the shipowner liable only for that share of the total damages equivalent to the ratio of its fault to the total fault. 577 F.2d 1153, 1155-1156 (1978).3 Other Courts of Appeals have reached the contrary conclusion.4 We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict, 439 U.S. 952, 99 S.Ct. 348, 58 L.Ed.2d 343 (1978), and, once again,5 we have before us a question of the meaning of the 1972 Amendments.

I

Admiralty law is judge-made law to a great extent, United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397, 409, 95 S.Ct. 1708, 1714, 44 L.Ed.2d 251 (1975); Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16, 20, 83 S.Ct. 1646, 1650, 10 L.Ed.2d 720 (1963), and a longshoreman's maritime tort action against a shipowner was recognized long before the 1972 Amendments, see Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 413-414, 74 S.Ct. 202, 207, 98 L.Ed. 143 (1953), as it has been since.6 As that law had evolved by 1972, a longshoreman's award in a suit against a negligent shipowner would be reduced by that portion of the damages assignable to the longshoreman's own negligence; but, as a matter of maritime tort law, the shipowner would be responsible to the longshoreman in full for the remainder, even if the stevedore's negligence contributed to the injuries.7 This latter rule is in accord with the common law, which allows an injured party to sue a tortfeasor for the full amount of damages for an indivisible injury that the tortfeasor's negligence was a substantial factor in causing, even if the concurrent negligence of others contributed to the incident.8

The problem we face today, as was true of similar problems the Court has dealt with in the past, is complicated by the overlap of loss-allocating mechanisms that are guided by somewhat inconsistent principles. The liability of the ship to the longshoreman is determined by a combination of judge-made and statutory law and, in the present context, depends on a showing of negligence or some other culpability. The longshoreman-victim, however, and his stevedore-employer—also a tortfeasor in this case are participants in a workers' compensation scheme that affords benefits to the longshoreman regardless of the employer's fault and provides that the stevedore's only liability for the longshoreman's injury is to the longshoreman in the amount specified in the statute.9 33 U.S.C. § 905. We have more than once attempted to reconcile these systems.

We first held that the shipowner could not circumvent the exclusive-remedy provision by obtaining contribution from the concurrent tortfeasor employer. Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282, 72 S.Ct. 277, 96 L.Ed. 318 (1952); Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, supra; see Cooper Stevedoring Co. v. Fritz Kopke, Inc., 417 U.S. 106, 111-113, 94 S.Ct. 2174, 2177-2178, 40 L.Ed.2d 694 (1974). As a matter of maritime law, we also held that a longshoreman working on a vessel was entitled to the warranty of seaworthiness, Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 94, 66 S.Ct. 872, 877, 90 L.Ed. 1099 (1946), which amounted to liability without fault for most onboard injuries.10 However, we went on to hold, as a matter of con- tract law, that the shipowner could obtain from the stevedore an express or implied warranty of workmanlike service that might result in indemnification of the shipowner for its liability to the longshoreman. Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Pan-Atlantic S.S. Corp., 350 U.S. 124, 76 S.Ct. 232, 100 L.Ed. 133 (1956).

Against this background, Congress acted in 1972, among other things,11 to eliminate the shipowner's liability to the longshoreman for unseaworthiness and the stevedore's liability to the shipowner for unworkmanlike service resulting in injury to the longshoreman—in other words, to overrule Sieracki and Ryan. See Northeast Marine Terminal Co. v. Caputo, 432 U.S. 249, 260-261, and n. 18, 97 S.Ct. 2348, 2355-2356, and n. 18, 53 L.Ed.2d 320 (1977); Cooper Stevedoring Co. v. Fritz Kopke, Inc., supra, 417 U.S., at 113 n. 6, 94 S.Ct., at 2178 n. 6. Though admitting that nothing in either the statute or its history expressly indicates that Congress intended to modify as well the existing rules governing the longshoreman's maritime negligence suit against the shipowner by diminishing damages recoverable from the latter on the basis of the proportionate fault of the nonparty stevedore, 577 F.2d, at 1155, and n. 2, the en banc Court of Appeals found that...

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