decided: June 27, 1979.
COMPAGNIE GENERALE TRANSATLANTIQUE
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT.
White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, Stewart, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 273. Powell, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
[ 443 U.S. Page 258]
MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
On March 3, 1974, the S.S. Atlantic Cognac, a containership owned by respondent, arrived at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal, Va. Petitioner, a longshoreman, was then employed by the Nacirema Operating Co., a stevedoring concern that the shipowner had engaged to unload cargo from the vessel. The longshoreman was injured in the course of that work, and he received benefits for that injury from his employer under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. 44 Stat. 1424, as amended, 33 U. S. C. § 901 et seq. In addition, the longshoreman brought this negligence action against the shipowner in Federal District Court.
A jury determined that the longshoreman had suffered total damages of $100,000, that he was responsible for 10% of the total negligence resulting in his injury, that the stevedore's fault, through a co-employee's negligence, contributed 70%, and that the shipowner was accountable for 20%.*fn1 Following an established principle of maritime law, the District Court reduced the award to the longshoreman by the 10% attributed to his own negligence.*fn2 But also in accordance with maritime law, and the common law as well, the court refused further to reduce the award against the shipowner in proportion to the fault of the employer.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, with two judges dissenting, reversed en banc, holding that the
[ 443 U.S. Page 2591972]
Amendments to the Act, 86 Stat. 1251, had altered the traditional admiralty rule by making the shipowner liable only for that share of the total damages equivalent to the ratio of its fault to the total fault. 577 F.2d 1153, 1155-1156 (1978).*fn3 Other Courts of Appeals have reached the contrary conclusion.*fn4 We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict, 439 U.S. 952 (1978), and, once again,*fn5 we have before us a question of the meaning of the 1972 Amendments.
Admiralty law is judge-made law to a great extent, United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397, 409 (1975); Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16, 20 (1963), and a longshoreman's maritime tort action against a shipowner was recognized long before the 1972 Amendments, see Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406, 413-414 (1953), as it has been since.*fn6 As that law had evolved by 1972, a
[ 443 U.S. Page 260]
longshoreman's award in a suit against a negligent shipowner would be reduced by that portion of the damages assignable to the longshoreman's own negligence; but, as a matter of maritime tort law, the shipowner would be responsible to the longshoreman in full for the remainder, even if the stevedore's negligence contributed to the injuries.*fn7 This latter rule is in accord with the common law, which allows an injured party to sue a tortfeasor for the full amount of damages for an indivisible injury that the tortfeasor's negligence was a substantial factor in causing, even if the concurrent negligence of others contributed to the incident.*fn8
[ 443 U.S. Page 261]
The problem we face today, as was true of similar problems the Court has dealt with in the past, is complicated by the overlap of loss-allocating mechanisms that are guided by somewhat inconsistent principles. The liability of the ship to the longshoreman is determined by a combination of judge-made and statutory law and, in the present context, depends on a showing of negligence or some other culpability. The longshoreman-victim, however, and his stevedore-employer -- also a tortfeasor in this case -- are participants in a workers' compensation scheme that affords benefits to the longshoreman regardless of the employer's fault and provides that the stevedore's only liability for the longshoreman's injury is to the longshoreman in the amount specified in the statute.*fn9 33 U. S. C. § 905. We have more than once attempted to reconcile these systems.
We first held that the shipowner could not circumvent the exclusive-remedy provision by obtaining contribution from the concurrent tortfeasor employer. Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S. 282 (1952); Pope & Talbot, Inc. v. Hawn, supra ; see Cooper Stevedoring Co. v. Fritz Kopke, Inc., 417 U.S. 106, 111-113 (1974). As a matter of maritime law, we also held that a longshoreman working on a vessel was entitled to the warranty of seaworthiness, Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85, 94 (1946), which amounted to liability without fault for most onboard injuries.*fn10 However, we went on to hold, as a matter of contract
[ 443 U.S. Page 262]
law, that the shipowner could obtain from the stevedore an express or implied warranty of workmanlike service that might result in indemnification of the shipowner for its liability to the longshoreman. Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Pan-Atlantic S.S. Corp., 350 U.S. 124 (1956).
Against this background, Congress acted in 1972, among other things,*fn11 to eliminate the shipowner's liability to the longshoreman for unseaworthiness and the stevedore's liability to the shipowner for unworkmanlike service resulting in injury to the longshoreman -- in other words, to overrule Sieracki and Ryan. See Northeast Marine Terminal Co. v. Caputo, 432 U.S. 249, 260-261, and n. 18 (1977); Cooper Stevedoring Co. v. Fritz Kopke, Inc., supra, at 113 n. 6. Though admitting that nothing in either the statute or its history expressly indicates that Congress intended to modify as well the existing rules governing the longshoreman's maritime negligence suit against the shipowner by diminishing damages recoverable from the latter on the basis of the proportionate fault of the nonparty stevedore, 577 F.2d, at 1155, and n. 2, the en banc Court of Appeals found that such a result was necessary to reconcile two sentences added in 1972 as part of 33 U. S. C. § 905 (b). The two sentences state:
"In the event of injury to a person covered under this chapter caused by the negligence of a vessel, then such person, or anyone otherwise entitled to recover damages by reason thereof, may bring an action against such vessel as a third party in accordance with the provisions of section 933 of this title, and the employer shall not be liable to the vessel for such damages directly or indirectly and any agreements or warranties to the contrary shall
[ 443 U.S. Page 263]
be void. If such person was employed by the vessel to provide stevedoring services, no such action shall be permitted if the injury was caused by the negligence of persons engaged in providing stevedoring services to the vessel." 33 U. S. C. § 905 (b).
The Court of Appeals described the perceived conflict in this fashion:
"The first sentence says that if the injury is caused by the negligence of a vessel the longshoreman may recover, but the second sentence says he may not recover anything of the ship if his injury was caused by the negligence of a person providing stevedoring services. The sentences are irreconcilable if read to mean that any negligence on the part of the ship will warrant recovery while any negligence on the part of the stevedore will defeat it. They may be harmonized only if read in apportioned terms." 577 F.2d, at 1155.
For a number of reasons, we are unpersuaded that Congress intended to upset a "long-established and familiar [principle]" of maritime law by imposing a proportionate-fault rule. Cf. Isbrandtsen Co. v. Johnson, 343 U.S. 779, 783 (1952).
In the first place, the conflict seen by the Court of Appeals is largely one of its own creation. Both sides admit that each sentence may be read so as not to conflict with the other. The first sentence addresses the recurring situation, reflected by the facts in this case, where the party injured by the negligence of the vessel is a longshoreman employed by a stevedoring concern. In these circumstances, the longshoreman may sue the vessel as a third party, but his employer, the stevedore, is not to be liable directly or indirectly for any damages that may be recovered. This first sentence overrules Ryan and prevents the vessel from recouping from the
[ 443 U.S. Page 264]
stevedore any of the damages that the longshoreman may recover from the vessel. But the sentence neither expressly nor implicitly purports to overrule or modify the traditional rule that the longshoreman may recover the total amount of his damages from the vessel if the latter's negligence is a contributing cause of his injury, even if the stevedore, whose limited liability is fixed by statute, is partly to blame.
The second sentence of the paragraph is expressly addressed to the different and less familiar arrangement where the injured longshoreman loading or unloading the ship is employed by the vessel itself, not by a separate stevedoring company -- in short, to the situation where the ship is its own stevedore.*fn12 In this situation, the second sentence places some limitations on suits against the vessel for injuries caused during its stevedoring operations.*fn13 Whatever these limitations may be, there is no conflict between the two sentences, and one arises only if the second sentence is read, as the Court of Appeals read it, as applying to all injured longshoremen, whether employed by the ship or by an independent stevedore. Nothing in the legislative history advises this construction of the sentence,*fn14
[ 443 U.S. Page 265]
and we see no reason to depart from the language of the statute in this respect.
Respondent insists that, even though the two sentences may deal with different business arrangements, problems still arise. If under the first sentence a third-party suit against the vessel is authorized when any part of the negligence causing the injury is that of the vessel, it is argued that suit against the vessel under the second sentence should be barred when any part of the negligence causing the injury is that of a co-worker also providing stevedoring services to the vessel. Under this interpretation, the employee of the independent stevedore could recover from the ship where the stevedore was responsible for 99% of the negligence, though a ship's employee performing stevedoring services could not hold the vessel liable if his co-worker's negligence was the slightest cause of the injury.*fn15 This is said to be preposterous and contrary to the legislative intent to treat the vessel that provides its own stevedoring services just like other shipowners when and if it negligently causes injury in its capacity as a shipowner and just like other stevedores when it negligently injures in the course of providing its own loading or unloading services.*fn16
Aside from the fact that the problem suggested would arise only in the application of the second sentence, which is not involved in this case, the argument that the words "caused by the negligence of" in the two sentences must be given the same meaning and that they cannot have the meaning ascribed to them by petitioner's construction of the first sentence, logically leads to the conclusion that the injured
[ 443 U.S. Page 266]
longshoreman should never be able to bring suit against the vessel unless it is the sole cause of the injury. This is a doubly absurd conclusion. It is supported by no one, and to avoid it, it is necessary only to construe the second sentence to permit a third-party suit against the vessel providing its own loading and unloading services when negligence in its nonstevedoring capacity contributes to the injury. The second sentence means no more than that all longshoremen are to be treated the same whether their employer is an independent stevedore or a shipowner-stevedore and that all stevedores are to be treated the same whether they are independent or an arm of the shipowner itself.
This leaves the question of the measure of recovery against a shipowner, whether or not it is doing its own stevedoring, when a shipowner it is only partially responsible for the negligence, but we are quite unable to distill from the face of the obviously awkward wording of the two sentences any indication that Congress intended to modify the pre-existing rule that a longshoreman who is injured by the concurrent negligence of the stevedore and the ship may recover for the entire amount of his injuries from the ship.
The legislative history strongly counsels against the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the statute, which modifies the longshoreman's pre-existing rights against the negligent vessel. The reports and debates leading up to the 1972 Amendments contain not a word of this concept.*fn17 This silence is most eloquent, for such reticence while contemplating an
[ 443 U.S. Page 267]
important and controversial change in existing law is unlikely.*fn18 Moreover, the general statements appearing in the legislative history concerning § 905 (b) are inconsistent with what respondent argues was in the back of the legislators' minds about this specific issue. The Committees repeatedly refer to the refusal to limit the shipowner's liability for negligence,*fn19 which they felt left the vessel in the same position as a land-based third party whose negligence injures an employee.*fn20 Because an employee generally may recover in full from a third-party concurrent tortfeasor,*fn21 these statements are hardly indicative of an intent to modify the law in the respect found by the Court of Appeals. At the very least, one would expect some hint of a purpose to work such a change, but there was none.
[ 443 U.S. Page 268]
The shipowner denies that the legislative history is so one-sided, relying upon statements that vessels "will not be chargeable with the negligence of the stevedore or [the] employees of the stevedore." S. Rep. 11; see 577 F.2d, at 1156 n. 2. But in context these declarations deal only with removal of the shipowner's liability under the warranty of seaworthiness for acts of the stevedore*fn22 -- even nonnegligent ones.*fn23
Finally, we note that the proportionate-fault rule adopted by the Court of Appeals itself produces consequences that we doubt Congress intended. It may remove some inequities, but it creates others and appears to shift some burdens to the longshoreman.
As we have said, § 905 permits the injured longshoreman to sue the vessel and exempts the employer from any liability to the vessel for any damages that may be recovered. Congress clearly contemplated that the employee be free to sue the third-party vessel, to prove negligence and causation on the vessel's part, and to have the total damages set by the court or jury without regard to the benefits he has received or to which he may be entitled under the Act. Furthermore,
[ 443 U.S. Page 269]
under the traditional rule, the employee may recover from the ship the entire amount of the damages so determined. If he recovers less than the statutory benefits, his employer is still liable for the statutory amount.
Under this arrangement, it is true that the ship will be liable for all of the damages found by the judge or jury; yet its negligence may have been only a minor cause of the injury. The stevedore-employer may have been predominantly responsible; yet its liability is limited by the Act, and if it has lien rights on the longshoreman's recovery it may be out-of-pocket even less.
Under the Court of Appeals' proportionate-fault rule, however, there will be many circumstances where the longshoreman will not be able to recover in any way the full amount of the damages determined in his suit against the vessel. If, for example, his damages are at least twice the benefits paid or payable under the Act and the ship is less than 50% at fault, the total of his statutory benefits plus the reduced recovery from the ship will not equal his total damages. More generally, it would appear that if the stevedore's proportionate fault is more than the proportion of compensation to actual damages, the longshoreman will always fall short of recovering the amount that the factfinder has determined is necessary to remedy his total injury, even though the diminution is due not to his fault, but to that of his employer.*fn24
But the impact of the proportionate-fault rule on the longshoreman does not stop there. Under § 933 (b), an administrative order for benefits operates as an assignment to the stevedore-employer of the longshoreman's rights against the third party unless the longshoreman sues within six months. And a corresponding judicially created lien in the employer's
[ 443 U.S. Page 270]
favor operates where the longshoreman himself sues.*fn25 In the past, this lien has been for the benefits paid up to the amount of the recovery.*fn26 And under § 933 (c), which Congress left intact in 1972, where the stevedore-employer sues the vessel as statutory assignee it may retain from any recovery an amount equal in general to the expenses of the suit, the costs of medical services and supplies it provided the employee, all compensation benefits paid, the present value of benefits to be paid, plus one-fifth of whatever might remain. Under the Court of Appeals' proportionate-fault system, the longshoreman would get very little, if any, of the diminished recovery obtained by his employer. Indeed, unless the vessel's proportionate fault exceeded the ratio of compensation benefits to total damages, the longshoreman would receive nothing from the third-party action, and the negligent stevedore might recoup all the compensation benefits it had paid.
Some inequity appears inevitable in the present statutory scheme, but we find nothing to indicate and should not presume that Congress intended to place the burden of the inequity on the longshoreman whom the Act seeks to protect.*fn27 Further, the 1972 Amendments make quite clear that "the employer shall not be liable to the vessel for such damages directly or indirectly," 33 U. S. C. § 905 (b) (emphasis supplied),*fn28 and that with the disappearance of the ship's contribution and indemnity right against the stevedore the latter
[ 443 U.S. Page 271]
should no longer have to appear routinely in suits between longshoreman and shipowner.*fn29 Consequently, as we have done before, we must reject a "theory that nowhere appears in the Act, that was never mentioned by Congress during the legislative process, that does not comport with Congress' intent, and that restricts . . . a remedial Act . . . ." Northeast Marine Terminal Co. v. Caputo, 432 U.S., at 278-279.
Of course, our conclusion that Congress did not intend to change the judicially created rule that the shipowner can be made to pay all the damages not due to the plaintiff's own negligence does not decide whether we are free to and should change that role so as to make the vessel liable only for the damages in proportion to its own negligence. Indeed, some amici in support of respondent share the view that Congress did not change the rule but argue that this Court should do so. We disagree.
Though we recently acknowledged the sound arguments supporting division of damages between parties before the court on the basis of their comparative fault, see United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397 (1975),*fn30 we
[ 443 U.S. Page 272]
are mindful that here we deal with an interface of statutory and judge-made law. In 1972 Congress aligned the rights and liabilities of stevedores, shipowners, and longshoremen in light of the rules of maritime law that it chose not to change.*fn31 "One of the most controversial and difficult issues
[ 443 U.S. Page 273]
which [Congress was] required to resolve . . . [concerned] the liability of vessels, as third parties, to pay damages to longshoremen who are injured while engaged in stevedoring operations." S. Rep. 8. By now changing what we have already established that Congress understood to be the law,*fn32 and did not itself wish to modify, we might knock out of kilter this delicate balance. As our cases advise, we should stay our hand in these circumstances. Cooper Stevedoring Co. v. Fritz Kopke, Inc., 417 U.S., at 112; Halcyon Lines v. Haenn Ship Ceiling & Refitting Corp., 342 U.S., at 285-286. Once Congress has relied upon conditions that the courts have created, we are not as free as we would otherwise be to change them. A change in the conditions would effectively alter the statute by causing it to reach different results than Congress envisioned. Indeed, Congress might have intended to adopt the existing maritime rule even for third-party actions under the Act that are not within the admiralty jurisdiction, though we need not and do not reach that issue today.
Accordingly, we reverse the judgment below and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE POWELL took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
577 F.2d 1153, reversed and remanded.
MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, with whom MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS join, dissenting.
The jury in this case found that the shipowner, the stevedore, and the longshoreman were each partially responsible
[ 443 U.S. Page 274]
for the latter's (petitioner Stanley Edmonds) injury. A member of the ship's crew instructed Edmonds to remove a jack from the rear wheel of a large cargo container. As Edmonds went behind the container to remove the jack, another longshoreman backed a truck into the container, causing it to roll backwards and pin Edmonds against the bulkhead. The jury concluded that the shipowner, as the employer of the crewman, was 20% responsible for the accident; the stevedore, as the employer of the longshoreman driving the truck, was 70% responsible; and Edmonds himself was 10% responsible.
The Court holds that the shipowner, who was 20% negligent, must pay 90% of Edmonds' damages. Edmonds, because of his comparative negligence, must absorb 10% of the damages himself. But the stevedore, who, the jury determined, was 70% at fault, will recoup its statutory compensation payments out of the damages payable to Edmonds, and thus will go scot-free.*fn1
The Court does not, and indeed could not, defend this result on grounds of reason or fairness. Today's ruling means that concurrently negligent stevedores will be insulated from the obligation to pay statutory workmen's compensation benefits, and thus will have inadequate incentives to provide a safe working environment for their employees. It also means that shipowners in effect will be held vicariously liable for the negligence of stevedores, and will have to pay damages far out of proportion to their degree of fault. Nor does the Court suggest that its holding is compelled by the language or legislative
[ 443 U.S. Page 275]
history of § 5 (b) of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), 33 U. S. C. § 905 (b). The Court appears to advance two justifications for its decision: first, that principles of comparative negligence did not apply under the traditional law of admiralty, and Congress intended to preclude judicial modification of that law when it passed the 1972 Amendments to the LHWCA; and second, that a rule of comparative negligence would be unfair to injured longshoremen. Since I find both purported justifications wholly inadequate to support the Court's decision, I respectfully dissent.
The Court begins with the proposition that, under the law maritime as it existed in 1972, the shipowner could not reduce its liability because of the comparative negligence of the stevedore: I am not entirely convinced. None of the decisions cited by the Court, ante, at 260 n. 7, stands for this proposition; the cases relied upon all concern the conceptually distinct problem -- to which the Court has given varying answers -- of whether there is a right of contribution among joint tortfeasors.*fn2 I am willing to assume, however, for purposes of argument, that the Court has correctly stated the "traditional" admiralty rule.
The Court next states that Congress itself did not impose a rule of comparative negligence when it adopted § 905 (b) in 1972. Again, I am not altogether sure. As Chief Judge Haynsworth demonstrated in his opinion for the en banc court
[ 443 U.S. Page 276]
below, there is some tension between the first and second sentences of § 905 (b).*fn3 These sentences are most easily reconciled if one assumes that Congress was thinking in terms of comparative negligence. The Court points out that there are other, less plausible, ways of reconciling the two sentences. Although I feel there is room for debate on this question, I am again willing to assume, for purposes of argument, that Congress did not impose a rule of comparative negligence in third-party suits under the LHWCA.
I cannot agree, however, with the Court's third proposition: that Congress intended to prohibit this Court from fashioning a rule of comparative negligence in suits for damages by a longshoreman against the shipowner. It is well established that courts exercising jurisdiction in maritime affairs have broad powers of interstitial rulemaking. As the Court stated in United States v. Reliable Transfer Co., 421 U.S. 397, 409 (1975), "the Judiciary has traditionally taken the lead in formulating flexible and fair remedies in the law maritime, and 'Congress has largely left to this Court the responsibility for fashioning the controlling rules of admiralty law.' Fitzgerald
[ 443 U.S. Page 277]
v. United States Lines Co., 374 U.S. 16, 20." I find nothing in the language or legislative history of § 905 (b) that indicates Congress intended to reverse this presumption with respect to third-party actions under the LHWCA.
The Court suggests that Congress, in enacting § 905 (b), "aligned the rights and liabilities of stevedores, shipowners, and longshoremen" on the specific assumption that the shipowner would not be allowed to reduce its liability because of the stevedore's comparative negligence. Ante, at 272. The legislative history belies this notion. Congress had two narrow objectives in mind in enacting § 905 (b) in 1972: to overcome this Court's decision in Seas Shipping Co. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85 (1946), and its decision in Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Pan-Atlantic S.S. Corp., 350 U.S. 124 (1956). See S. Rep. No. 92-1125, pp. 8-11 (1972). These decisions had created a form of circuitous liability whereby the longshoreman, under Seas Shipping, sued the shipowner under a theory of unseaworthiness; the shipowner, under Ryan Stevedoring, obtained full indemnity from the stevedore; and the stevedore ended up paying actual damages rather than statutory compensation. Congress overruled the strict-liability theory of Seas Shipping to ensure that "[the] vessel will not be chargeable with the negligence of the stevedore or employees of the stevedore." S. Rep. No. 92-1125, supra, at 11. It eliminated the Ryan Stevedoring action for indemnification because if "the vessel's liability is to be based on its own negligence, and the vessel will no longer be liable under the unseaworthiness doctrine for injuries which are really the fault of the stevedore, there is no longer any necessity for permitting the vessel to recover the damages for which it is liable to the injured worker from the stevedore. . . ." S. Rep. No. 92-1125, supra, at 11. These statements of legislative purpose are as consistent, or more consistent, with a system of comparative negligence, than with a congressional assumption that the shipowner would be fully liable for the concurrent negligence of the stevedore.
[ 443 U.S. Page 278]
The legislative history indicates that, if anything, Congress intended to preserve the role of the federal courts in filling in the contours of § 905 (b). The House and Senate Reports state that the liability of a shipowner in an action brought by a longshoreman should be analogous to that which "would render a land-based third party in non-maritime pursuits liable under similar circumstances." S. Rep. No. 92-1125, supra, at 11. The Report emphasizes, however, that this does not mean state tort law is to govern third-party negligence suits against the vessel.
"[The] Committee does not intend that the negligence remedy authorized in the bill shall be applied differently in different ports depending on the law of the State in which the port may be located. The Committee intends that legal questions which may arise in actions brought under these provisions of the law shall be determined as a matter of Federal law. In that connection, the Committee intends that the admiralty concept of comparative negligence, rather than the common law rule as to contributory negligence, shall apply in cases where the injured employee's own negligence may have contributed to causing the injury. Also, the Committee intends that the admiralty rule which precludes the defense of 'assumption of risk' in an action by an injured employee shall also be applicable." Id., at 12.
In other words, Congress specifically reaffirmed the admiralty law tradition in the 1972 Amendments, and intended that this Court would continue to resolve "legal questions which may arise in actions brought under these provisions" in accordance with that tradition.
In short, in this case, as in Reliable Transfer, 421 U.S., at 409, "[no] statutory or judicial precept precludes a change in the rule [that the shipowner is fully liable for the concurrent negligence of the stevedore], and indeed a proportional fault rule would simply bring recovery [as between the stevedore
[ 443 U.S. Page 279]
and shipowner] into line with the rule of admiralty law long since established [as between the longshoreman and the shipowner]."
I am also convinced that no injustice to injured longshoremen would result from a rule of comparative negligence. A rule of comparative negligence in no case would reduce the longshoreman's total award below his statutory workmen's compensation benefits.*fn4 The rule of comparative negligence would affect only the relative proportion of statutory benefits and damages in the longshoreman's total compensation package. In the present case, for example, a rule of comparative negligence would mean the longshoreman would receive 20% damages and 80% statutory benefits, as opposed to 90% damages and 10% statutory benefits.
At first blush, it might appear that there is something unfair about reducing the total potential award of the longshoreman in this manner. But when the different purposes of the statutory compensation scheme and the third-party action for negligence are considered, it can be seen that this result is fully consistent with the policies of the statute. The LHWCA statutory compensation scheme, like other workmen's compensation plans, is based on a compromise. The longshoreman accepts less than full damages for work-related injuries. In exchange, he is guaranteed that these statutory benefits will be paid for every work-related injury without regard to fault. The third-party tort action, in contrast, embodies an element of risk. The longshoreman faces the prospect of an increased award, but also the possibility of receiving nothing if the shipowner is found not to have been negligent.
[ 443 U.S. Page 280]
The problem of perceiving the equities arises because of the interaction of the compensation scheme and the tort scheme. If a longshoreman is injured while working on a vessel, and the stevedore is 100% at fault, no one considers it unjust that the longshoreman receives only statutory benefits. The award of less than full damages is the quid pro quo for the guarantee of recovery without regard to the employer's fault. Similarly, if a longshoreman is injured and the shipowner is 100% to blame, everyone agrees that it is fitting and proper for the shipowner to pay full damages. The Court, however, perceives "some inequity" in not allowing the longshoreman to obtain full damages when the shipowner has been determined to be only 20% negligent. Presumably, this same "inequity" would result if the longshoreman did not obtain full damages when the shipowner was 10% or 5% or even 1% negligent. This is not equity, however, but a windfall. Under the Court's rule, the longshoreman is guaranteed statutory compensation without regard to fault and is given a risk-free chance to obtain full damages if the shipowner is found negligent in even the slightest degree. A more evenhanded equity, in my view, would be for the longshoreman to recover damages for that portion of the injury for which the shipowner's negligence is responsible, and to recover the balance in statutory compensation, representing that portion of the injury for which the longshoreman is guaranteed an award regardless of fault.*fn5
In sum, this case presents the relatively common situation where a statute is open to two interpretations, and the legislative history, although instructive as to the overriding purposes of Congress, provides no specific guidance as to which
[ 443 U.S. Page 281]
interpretation Congress would have adopted if it had addressed the precise issue. Our duty, in such a case, is to adopt the interpretation most consonant with reason, equity, and the underlying purposes Congress sought to achieve. If we are wrong, Congress can, as it has in the past, step in and adopt some other solution. But the problem should not be resolved by complacently accepting an unfair and unjust result, on the assumption the choice between the two interpretations ideally should be made by Congress. Under that approach, the Court and the country at large may end up with nothing more than an unfair and unjust result.
* Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by David R. Owen for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.; and by Thomas D. Wilcox for the National Association of Stevedores.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Randall C. Coleman for American Export Lines, Inc., et al.; and by Graydon S. Staring for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.
Paul S. Edelman, Arthur Abarbanel, and Bernard M. Goldstein filed a brief for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America as amicus curiae.