The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL
This is a negligence action under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 901-50 (1970 & Supp. V 1975), for injuries sustained by the plaintiff while he was working aboard the defendant's vessel, the American Accord. After the trial, the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff of $90,000. The defendant timely moved for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and the Court reserved decision. After reviewing the evidence presented and the growing amount of applicable case law, the Court grants defendant's motion.
Typical of this area of federal maritime law, the plaintiff's simple story gives rise to several somewhat troublesome legal issues.
Plaintiff was employed by A.G. Shipping Maintenance Corp. as a lasher. A.G. Shipping was employed to aid in the loading of containers aboard the defendant's container ship, the American Accord, at a pier in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a lasher, the plaintiff's job was to climb on top of the containers as they were hoisted aboard the ship's deck in order to secure the containers to the deck and to each other with steel cables.
On the night that the plaintiff was injured, he was working on top of a stack of four such containers. While assisting in securing cables to the top container in the stack, he slipped and fell off the stack onto an adjacent stack eight feet below, which was three containers high. Although there were some differences in the testimony concerning the nature and extent of plaintiff's injuries, it was established that he did suffer a degree of disability.
The cause of the plaintiff's fall was not clear from the evidence. At an earlier deposition, he gave several explanations, including the possibility that there was an improper patch on the top of the container from which he fell. At trial, however, he claimed that the container top had a "canal" or dent in it near the edge, which caused him to slide off onto the stack below.
The defendant contended that it was raining and the plaintiff merely slipped on the wet surface.
The theory of the plaintiff's case was that the shipowner was negligent in not having an officer on the bridge to inspect the containers as they were lifted aboard by the stevedores. Conflicting expert testimony was presented on whether such inspection procedures were customary for a ship's crew to undertake. There was no evidence that such inspection was carried out by any member of the ship's personnel in this particular case.
The defendant's position was that such inspection procedures, even if used by the ship in this case, would have been ineffective because of distance, the obstruction of the bridge's wind screen, and the difficulty of viewing the top of the containers under the lighting conditions that existed on the night of the accident. It was also defendant's position that if a ship's officer could have made effective inspections of containers from the bridge, the plaintiff surely could have seen such a dent or depression in the top of the very container upon which he was standing and, therefore, must have been negligent himself. It appeared from the evidence that this particular container had been lifted aboard the American Accord about thirty minutes before the accident occurred. The container had been loaded in the normal way. It was brought to the pier on a truck, inspected by the terminal operator, and then hoisted aboard with a large crane operated by stevedores.
The Court charged the jury under traditional negligence principles that the defendant was negligent if it knew or should have known about any unreasonably dangerous defect in the container, and failed to take steps to correct the defect or warn the plaintiff of its existence. The jury, after a brief deliberation, found the shipowner negligent and the plaintiff free from fault, and awarded the verdict in plaintiff's favor.
Plaintiff's action against the shipowner is governed by the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, parts of which were amended by Congress in 1972. Pub. L. No. 92-576, 86 Stat. 1251, amending 33 U.S.C. §§ 901-50 (1970). The 1972 amendments have inspired a rich array of commentary analyzing the history of the Act and the legislative intent behind the changes, and such a detailed discussion of the background is not warranted here.
One of the more succinct explanations of the 1972 amendments was made by the court in Ramirez v. Toko Kaiun K.K., 385 F. Supp. 644, 650 (N.D. Cal. 1974):
"Under the plan as formulated by Congress, the longshoreman lost his claim against the vessel under the warranty of seaworthiness allowed by Sieracki [ Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 90 L. Ed. 1099, 66 S. Ct. 872 (1946)], and in return was granted much higher compensation benefits. The stevedoring company that employs the longshoreman was forced to pay the higher workmen's compensation benefits, but was relieved of liability from Ryan -type [ Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Pan-Atlantic S.S. Co., 350 U.S. 124, 100 L. Ed. 133, 76 S. Ct. 232 (1955)] indemnity suits brought by the vessel. The vessel lost its indemnity rights against the stevedoring company, but had its liability to longshoremen limited to cases where its negligence can be proved."
See also Munoz v. Flota Merchante Grancolombiana, S.A., 553 F.2d 837, 839-40 (2d Cir. 1977).
The specific section of the amended Act at issue in this case is section 905(b), which governs the longshoreman's action against the shipowner for negligence.