Pope Talbot v. Hawn

Decision Date07 December 1953
Docket NumberNo. 13,13
Citation74 S.Ct. 202,1954 A.M.C. 1,346 U.S. 406,98 L.Ed. 143
PartiesPOPE & TALBOT, Inc., v. HAWN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Mark D. Alspach, Philadelphia, Pa., for petitioner.

Mr. Charles Lakatos, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondent Hawn.

Mr. Thomas F. Mount, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondent Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent Charles Hawn sustained severe physical injuries when he slipped and fell through an uncovered hatch hole on the petitioner Pope & Talbot's vessel. The ship was then berthed at a pier located in Pennsylvania waters of the Delaware River. Loading of the vessel with grain for a voyage had been temporarily interrupted to make minor repairs on the grain loading equipment. Hawn was doing carpentry work on this equipment to make it spread to grain evenly and thereby balance the ship's load to make the coming voyage safer. He was not an employee of Pope & Talbot's but of the respondent Haenn Ship Ceiling and Refitting Company which had been hired to make these repairs. Hawn brought this civil action in a United States District Court to recover damages for his injuries. His complaint charged that his injuries resulted from the vessel's unseaworthiness and from Pope & Talbot's negligence. In answering, Pope & Talbot denied both charges and set up contributory negligence as a defense to each. In addition, Pope & Talbot brought in Hawn's employer Haenn as a third party defendant, alleging that Haenna's negligence had caused Hawn's injury and claiming recovery over against Haenn by way of contribution or indemnity. A jury found that the ship was unseaworthy, that Pope & Talbot had been negligent, that Haenn had been negligent and that Hawn's own negligence had contributed 17 1/2% of his damages. On this basis, the court entered judgment for Hawn against Pope & Talbot for $29,700, 17 1/2% less than the $36,000 at which the jury had fixed his damages. A judgment for contribution by Haenn to Pope & Talbot was also entered. 99 F.Supp. 226, 100 F.Supp. 338. The Court of Appeals afirmed Hawn's judgment against Pope & Talbot. It reversed the judgment of contribution against Haenn. 198 F.2d 800. This Court granted certiorari.

The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment for contribution by Haenn on the basis of our holding in Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282, 72 S.Ct. 277, 96 L.Ed. 318. In that case we held that contribution could not be exacted under circumstances like those here involved. For that reason we affirm the Court of Appeals reversal of the District Court's judgment against Haenn and proceed to a consideration of the several questions presented by Pope & Talbot as grounds for attack on Hawn's judgment.

First. Petitioner urges that the jury finding of contributory negligence should have been accepted as a complete bar to Hawn's recovery. The contention appears to rest on two separate bases: (a) Admiralty has not developed any definite rule as to the effect of contributory negligence, and therefore the common-law rule under which contributory negligence bars recovery should govern in admiralty, (b) Pennsylvania law controls this case and under that state's law any contributory negligence of an injured person is an insuperable bar to his recovery.

(a) The harsh rule of the common law under which contributory negligence wholly barred an injured person from recovery is completely incompatible with modern admiralty policy and practice. Exercising its traditional discretion, admiralty has developed and now follows its own fairer and more flexible rule which allows such consideration of contributory negligence in mitigation of damages as justice requires.1 Petitioner presents no persuasive arguments that admiralty should now adopt a discredited doctrine which automatically destroys all claims of injured persons who have contributed to their injuries in any degree, however slight.

(b) Nor can we agree that Hawn's rights must be determined by the law of Pennsylvania, under which, it is said, any contributory negligence would bar all recovery in this personal injury action. True, Hawn was hurt inside Pennsylvania and ordinarily his rights would be determined by Pennsylvania law. But he was injured on navigable waters while working on a ship to enable it to complete its loading for safer transportation of its cargo by water. Consequently, the basis of Hawn's action is a maritime tort,2 a type of action which the Constitution had placed under national power to control in 'its substantive as well as its procedural features * * *.' Panama R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 375, 386, 44 S.Ct. 391, 393, 68 L.Ed. 748. And Hawn's complaint asserted no claim created by or arising out of Pennsylvania law. His right to recovery for unseaworthiness and negligence is rooted in federal maritime law. Even if Hawn were seeking to enforce a state-created remedy for this right, federal maritime law would be controlling. While states may sometimes supplement federal maritime policies,3 a state may not deprive a person of any substantial admiralty rights as defined in controlling acts of Congress or by interpretative decisions of this Court. These principles have been frequently declared and we adhere to them. See e.g., Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co., 317 U.S. 239, 243—246, 63 S.Ct. 246, 249—251, 87 L.Ed. 239, and cases there cited. Caldarola v. Eckert, 332 U.S. 155, 67 S.Ct. 1569, 91 L.Ed. 1968, does not support the contention that a state which undertakes to enforce federally created maritime rights can dilute claims fashioned by federal power, which is dominant in this field.

Another argument is that Pennsylvania law must govern here because the District Court's jurisdiction was rested on diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1332.4 For this contention the principle established in Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188, is invoked. That case decided that federal district diversity courts must try state created causes of action in accordance with state laws. This ended a longstanding federal court practice under which the outcome of lawsuits to enforce state created causes of action often depended on whether they were tried in a state courthouse or a federal courthouse. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins was thus designed to ensure that litigants with the same kind of case would have their rights measured by the same legal standards of liabil- ity. It appears to be contended here, however, that one injured on navigable waters who sues in federal court under diversity jurisdiction somehow jeopardizes his right to have as full a recovery as he otherwise would. It is certainly contended that one who sues on the 'law side' of the docket has much less chance to recover than one who sues on the 'admiralty side.' Thus we are asked to use the Erie-Tompkins case to bring about the same kind of unfairness it was designed to end. Once again, the substantial rights of parties would depend on which courthouse, or even on which 'side' of the same courthouse, a lawyer might guess to be in the best interests of his client. We decline to depart from the principle of equal justice embodied in the Erie-Tompkins doctrine. Of course the substantial rights of an injured person are not to be determined differently whether his case is labelled 'law side' or 'admiralty side' on a district court's docket. Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 88—89, 66 S.Ct. 872, 874—875, 90 L.Ed. 1099.5 The District Court and Court of Appeals correctly refused to deny Hawn's federal right of recovery by applying the Pennsylvania contributory negligence rule.

Second. Haenn has been making compensation payments to Hawn because of obligations imposed by the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. 44 Stat. 1424, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., 33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq. Hawn has agreed to refund these payments to his employer out of his Pope & Talbot recovery. Pope & Talbot contends that the judgment against it should be reduced by this amount. It points out that Hawn's verdict includes sums for past loss of wages and medical expenses which it is argued were the very items on account of which Hawn's employer paid him. Consequently Pope & Talbot says that if Hawn keeps the money he will have a double recovery and that to allow him to repay Haenn would give an unconscionable reward to an employer whose negligence contributed to the injury. A weakness in this ingenious argument is that § 3 of the Act has specific provisions to permit an employer to recoup his compensation payments out of any recovery from a third person negligently causing such injuries. Pope & Talbot's contention if accepted would frustrate this purpose to protect employers who are subjected to absolute liability by the Act. Moreover, reduction of Pope & Talbot's liability at the expense of Haenn would be the substantial equivalent of contribution which we declined to require in the Halcyon case.

Third. We are asked to reverse this judgment by overruling our holding in Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 66 S.Ct. 872, 90 L.Ed. 1099. Sieracki, an employee of an independent stevedoring company, was injured on a ship while working as a stevedore loading the cargo. We held that he could recover from the shipowner because of unseaworthiness of the ship or its appliances. We decided this over strong protest that such a holding would be an unwarranted extension of the doctrine of seaworthiness to workers other than seamen. That identical argument is repeated here. We reject it again and adhere to Sieracki. We are asked, however, to distinguish this case from our holding there. It is pointed out that Sieracki was a 'stevedore.' Hawn was not. And Hawn was not loading the vessel. On these grounds we are asked to deny Hawn the protection we held the law gave Sieracki. These slight differences in fact cannot fairly justify the distinction...

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