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Lopez v. Svendborg

decided: July 24, 1978.

ESTEBAN LOPEZ, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
A/S D/S SVENDBORG AND D/S OF 1912 A/S, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from directed verdict by United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Richard Owen, J., in negligence action by longshoreman suing shipowner for personal injuries. Reversed and remanded.

Before Oakes, Circuit Judge, and Mehrtens*fn* and Blumenfeld,*fn** District Judges.

Author: Blumenfeld

This is another case which calls for the application of the 1972 Amendments to the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act ("LHWCA"), 33 U.S.C. ยงยง 901-950. The plaintiff is a longshoreman who was accidentally injured while at work discharging cargo in the bottom of a hold on the M/S TREIN MAERSK, a vessel owned by the defendants A/S D/S Svendborg and D/S of 1912 A/S. He brought an action in negligence against the shipowner which was tried for two days before Judge Richard Owen and a jury. After the plaintiff rested, the trial judge granted the defendants' "motion to dismiss" for failure to prove a prima facie case of liability against the defendants. The jury was discharged without reaching a verdict. No findings were made as called for by Rule 41(b), Fed.R.Civ.P. The parties have treated this procedural posture of the case as if the court had granted a defendant's motion for a directed verdict under Rule 50(a). Since this was a trial to a jury, we are of the view that it is appropriate to consider the case on that basis.

At issue on this appeal is whether there was evidence of negligence by the defendant shipowner "of such quality and weight that reasonable and fair-minded men in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusions . . . ." Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969). See also Epoch Producing Corp. v. Killiam Shows, Inc., 522 F.2d 737, 742-43 (2d Cir. 1975), Cert. denied, 424 U.S. 955, 96 S. Ct. 1429, 47 L. Ed. 2d 360 (1976). In making that assessment we "must view the evidence and all inferences most favorably to the party against whom the motion is made," O'Connor v. Pennsylvania R.R. Co., 308 F.2d 911, 914 (2d Cir. 1962). "The non-moving party is given the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the evidence, and evidence unfavorable to it may be considered only if that evidence stands uncontradicted and unimpeached." Bigelow v. Agway, Inc., 506 F.2d 551, 554 (2d Cir. 1974).

I.

There was evidence from which the jury could have found the following facts: the plaintiff, a longshoreman employed by Universal Terminal and Stevedoring Co. as a hold-man, was discharging cargo from the square of the lower hold of Hatch No. 4 of the defendants' vessel on February 28, 1973, when he sustained an accidental injury to his back.

Lopez and the longshore gang of which he was a member had boarded the ship at 8:00 a. m. and were directed to begin at No. 4 hold, from which the hatch cover had already been removed. Loose cartons on top of the stow, held in place by the coaming, were quickly removed. The cargo below those cartons had been palletized. Even though the cargo may have been properly stowed before making a long voyage to New York from the Orient, it had shifted, apparently because of heavy seas. Not only had it shifted, but the cargo was in a considerably damaged condition. Packages had been damaged and kegs of bolts had broken open. Loose bolts were heavily scattered throughout the remainder of the cargo. Some bolts had sifted down as far as the floor of the hold through spaces created when the cargo shifted. The loose bolts scattered about made the hold a dangerous place for the longshoremen engaged in removing the cargo.

The condition of the stow in hold No. 4 was called to the attention of an officer of the ship and the stevedore's foreman by the hatch boss. Both looked down into the hold and observed it. The hatch boss asked, "What are you going to do with this mess?" In the presence of the ship's officer, he was told, "Keep working, the cargo got to come out of the ship, tell your men to be careful; keep working." Later that morning, after most of the cargo in the square of hold No. 4 had been removed, the plaintiff and a coworker were lifting a case from the floor of the square to a pallet from which it had fallen, when the plaintiff stepped on a loose bolt which caused him to slip and subject the muscles of his back to a sudden and unexpected strain, resulting in the injuries for which he sued.

II.

The reasons Judge Owen gave for his decision to grant the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint may be extracted from the statements he made during colloquy with counsel. More than one reason was given.

(1) First he considered the conduct of the plaintiff. He focused his attention upon the duty of the plaintiff with respect to the risk of injury.

"It seems to me absolutely clear on this record, without argument, that there is no jury question here. Longshoremen, since time immemorial have had to work under circumstances where there is litter, there is debris, there are turnbuckles, there are bales of wire, there are pieces of dunnage broken and unbroken, lying about areas in which they are working. And they are expected to cope with this kind of thing lying around the areas in which they are working." Tr. 226.

(2) Second, he considered the conduct of the defendants. Proof of the risk of injury to the plaintiff and of how it had been created did not pose any problem. That was evident from his application of what he conceived to be the law to the facts. Quoting from Ruffino v. Scindia Steam Navigation Co., 559 F.2d 861, 862 (2d Cir. 1977), he said,

"if you go with this case on the Ruffino test, . . . the law there is, "Before liability can attach for (an) independently created danger,' which is here arguably heavy seas, "the owner must have knowledge of its existence and (the) opportunity to alleviate it.' There is no question on this record the jury can find the owner knew of its existence." Tr. 227.

He continued:

"I just don't see how there was an opportunity here on (Sic ) the owner of the vessel to alleviate this condition, even assuming that you find it to be an independently created danger. . . .

". . . It is certainly reasonable for the vessel to assume that under these circumstances, experienced longshoremen would be able to avoid stepping on a bolt and taking a spill." Tr. 227-28.

By this juxtaposition of comments on the duty of the shipowner and the duty upon the plaintiff it appears that the Judge may have been adopting the harsh rule that contributory negligence is a complete bar to recovery. In admiralty contributory negligence may reduce, but does not bar, recovery for personal injuries. Under the admiralty rule the plaintiff's recovery is reduced in proportion to his own fault. Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 408-09, 74 S. Ct. 202, 98 L. Ed. 143 (1953). By its adoption of the 1972 Amendments to LHWCA, Congress intended that comparative negligence would apply to longshoremen's actions, and that assumption of risk would not. H.R.Rep.No.92-1441, 92d Cong., 2d Sess., Reprinted in (1972) U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News, pp. 4698, 4705.*fn1 The ruling of the court was in error insofar as it was based on a conclusion that the plaintiff was barred from recovery because he was guilty of contributory negligence or had assumed the risk of his injuries. Whether, and to what extent, any contributory negligence of the plaintiff should reduce his damages must be left to the jury for its determination.

Having considered whether the plaintiff is entitled to be compensated, we turn next to the question of whether, in view of the fact that the shipowner knew of the dangerous conditions in the hold which existed when it was turned over to the stevedore, the shipowner ought to pay. There was ...


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