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Munoz v. Flota Merchante Grancolombiana

decided: April 25, 1977.

ANTHONY MUNOZ, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
FLOTA MERCHANTE GRANCOLOMBIANA, S.A., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from a judgment of $13,000 entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Edward Weinfeld, Judge, after denial of motions by the shipowner for a directed verdict and to set aside the jury verdict in favor of the longshoreman suing the shipowner for personal injuries. Reversed. Judgment for defendant-appellant dismissing the complaint.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Lumbard and Van Graafeiland, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Chief Judge:

Much like ancient mariners who puzzled over the Greek god Triton and the mermaids, modern judges and legislators often have been vexed in their attempt to ascertain a proper legal classification for the longshoreman. Bound at once to the seafaring trade and mainland commerce, the harbor worker frequently found himself in the anomalous position of being land-based but regarded, nevertheless, as a seaman in the eyes of the law. One of the most confusing instances of this phenomenon was the litigation spawned by work-related personal injuries.

In an effort to bring order out of chaos, Congress amended the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) in 1972 to clarify and limit the circumstances under which the employee of a stevedore could recover damages from a shipowner for on-the-job accidents. In this case we believe that the district judge misconstrued the statute and the intent of Congress when he permitted the jury to find a non-negligent shipowner liable for injuries suffered by a longshoreman. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the district court, and direct that judgment be entered for the defendant-appellant dismissing the complaint.

I.

The undisputed facts may be stated briefly. On November 3, 1973 the CIUDAD DE IBAQUE arrived in Brooklyn to discharge and load cargo. The ship's owner, appellant Flota Merchante Grancolombiana, contracted with Universal Maritime Services (UMS) for the rendition of all stevedoring services. Shipping companies engage stevedores to load and unload goods from their ships because the work requires unusual expertise. In addition, the regulations of the International Longshoremen's Association prohibit crew members of foreign flag ships, such as the CIUDAD DE IBAQUE, from performing this type of labor.

UMS had discharged all freight from the ship's No. 3 hatch by 10:30 A.M. on November 5, and proceeded to load the hold. Two groups of longshoremen labored until 9 P.M. to pack the forward portion of the stowage compartment. The following morning UMS hired several additional longshoremen including the appellee, Anthony Munoz, to assist in the loading operation. Soon after his arrival at 9 A.M. Munoz was assigned to work in the No. 3 lower hold. Unable to reach his destination from the lower 'tween deck by the accustomed route because the forward escape hatch was blocked with cargo, the appellee was compelled to climb below on a wooden ladder located in the middle area (i.e. square) of the hatch.

Once below Munoz joined other UMS employees in stowing large rolls of paper used in printing news in the square of the hatch, aft of the cargo that the longshoremen had stored on the previous day. As each row of cylinders was laid, the workers put plywood boards - "dunnage" - on top to afford them a level area upon which to place another layer of drums. Before this process was completed one of the rolls of paper became wedged against another. Munoz, who decided that a tool was required to dislodge the cylinder, saw a crowbar several feet away from him on a "pathway" that led to the forward escape hatch. UMS employees had constructed this walkway on the preceding day by arranging boxes of cargo in step-like tiers proceeding upward toward the 'tween deck. The path was covered with separation paper - thin sheets used to divide goods destined for different ports.

Munoz stepped from the dunnage boards to the pathway and walked in a crouched fashion for one or two steps when he felt the cargo beneath him shift. The appellee then fell forward. He reached ahead to cushion his landing, but emerged from the incident with a sprained wrist and fractured small finger.

The appellant shipowner moved for a directed verdict at the close of Munoz's case, and renewed the motion before the jury commenced its deliberations. Judge Weinfeld reserved decision and directed the jury to return a special verdict in the form of answers to six questions.*fn1 After less than two hours the jury concluded that the shipowner's negligence was the sole cause of Munoz's injuries, and awarded the appellee $13,000. In post-trial briefs the appellant again urged, based on the Act as amended, that the verdict be set aside and the complaint dismissed. Judge Weinfeld denied these motions and entered judgment for the longshoreman. This appeal followed.

II.

The shipowner's responsibility for maritime accidents cannot follow from mere invocation, without more, of the talismanic claim of "negligence." Congress, by its extensive overhaul of the LHWCA in 1972, sought to achieve several goals: adequate, increased and sure compensation for injured longshoremen, elimination of the rubric of liability without fault for shipowners, and encouragement of safety within the industry by placing the duty of care on the party best able to prevent accidents. Application of these principles to the instant facts mandates reversal.

Prior to 1972 unconscionably meager benefits paid pursuant to the LHWCA forced injured workers to seek judicial redress. In attempting to circumvent the clear injustice of inadequate awards, the courts not only created a procedural thicket for the litigants but also undermined the foundation of the compensation system. Thus we observed the Supreme Court sanctioning the maintenance of a direct third party action by an injured longshoreman against the shipowner. Seas Shipping Co., Inc. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 90 L. Ed. 1099, 66 S. Ct. 872 (1946). Since the harbor worker was not employed by the owner but by an independent contractor - the stevedoring company - liability was grounded on the doctrine of unseaworthiness. Reasoning that longshoremen were subject to hazards identical to those experienced by seamen, who at one time had performed stevedoring services, the Court placed upon the shipowner absolute ...


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