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EDMONDS v. COMPAGNIE GENERALE TRANSATLANTIQUE

decided: June 27, 1979.

EDMONDS
v.
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.

Author: White

[ 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.

I

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).

A

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 ...


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