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VASQUEZ v. INTERMARITIME CARRIERS S.A.

November 1, 1977

JUAN VASQUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
INTERMARITIME CARRIERS S.A., Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HAIGHT

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

 HAIGHT, District Judge:

 Defendant Intermaritime Carriers, the vessel owner, has moved before this Court for a dismissal of plaintiff longshoreman's personal injury claim as time-barred by New York State's three-year statute of limitations, CPLR § 214(5). For the reasons discussed herein, the motion is denied.

 Plaintiff, a New York resident, avers he was injured while employed as a longshoreman on the defendant's vessel while she was docked in Newark, New Jersey on April 26, 1973. This suit was commenced on December 21, 1976 under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (the "Act"), 33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq. (1970), as amended (Supp. 1977).

 The defendant shipowner raises only one question in this motion: whether New York's three-year statute of limitations bars the plaintiff's action. No argument is made that the claim should be barred by the doctrine of laches and consequently no position on the merits of such an assertion is intended in this opinion.

 Prior to the 1972 amendments to the Act, it was clear that state statutes of limitation did not operate to bar injury or death actions brought on behalf of longshoremen. The timeliness of the action was instead measured by the equitable doctrine of laches, which American admiralty courts derived from English authority, The Key City, 81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 653, 20 L. Ed. 896 (1871), and applied to longshoremen's suits against vessels founded upon unseaworthiness and negligence, Czaplicki v. The Hoegh Silvercloud, 351 U.S. 525, 533, 100 L. Ed. 1387, 76 S. Ct. 946 (1956). Laches consists of a combination of unreasonable delay by the plaintiff in commencing the suit and resulting prejudice to the defendant; each case necessarily turns on its own circumstances. Admiralty courts consider an analogous state statute of limitations as a guideline in determining laches, but its effect is limited to the burden of persuasion on the issue. Thus Judge Friendly observed in Larios v. Victory Carriers, Inc., 316 F.2d 63, 66 (2d Cir. 1963):

 
"When the suit has been brought after the expiration of the state limitation period, a court applying maritime law asks why the case should be allowed to proceed; when the suit, although perhaps long delayed, has nevertheless been brought within the state limitation period, the court asks why it should not be."

 The 1972 amendments to the Act eliminated unseaworthiness as a basis for recovery by longshoremen, relegating them to principles of negligence deriving from land-based authority. In Munoz v. Flota Merchante Grancolombiana, S.A., 553 F.2d 837, 840 (2d Cir. 1977), the Second Circuit reviewed the purpose of the amendments and described the proper function of the courts:

 
"Federal courts were to fashion a uniform law of negligence in future cases, based not upon the doctrine of seaworthiness or 'nondelegable duty,' but by analogy to land-based common law tort principles."

 The present motion poses the question of whether the Congress, in eliminating unseaworthiness as a basis of a shipowner's liability to longshoremen and recasting it in terms of "land-based common law tort principles", also intended to do away with laches as the measure of the timeliness of suit, recasting that question in terms of state statutes of limitations.

 Neither the amendments nor the legislative history *fn1" address this question directly. The key amendment, 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), declares the substantive concepts of law, without discussing the time within which suit must be brought. *fn2" The Committee Report is equally devoid of specific references to statutes of limitation or timeliness; however the defendant in the case at bar argues that Congressional intent to substitute limitations for laches should be inferred from certain general statements in the Report:

 
"The Committee believes that where a longshoreman or other worker covered under this Act is injured through the fault of the vessel, the vessel should be liable for damages as a third party, just as land-based parties in non-maritime pursuits are liable for damages when, through their fault, a worker is injured.
 
* * *
 
"The purpose of the amendments is to place an employee injured aboard a vessel in the same position he would be if he were injured in non-maritime employment ashore, insofar as bringing a third party damage action is concerned, and not to endow him with any special maritime theory of liability or cause of action under whatever judicial ...

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