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U.S. Supreme Court

Czaplicki v. The Hoegh Silvercloud, 351 U.S. 525 (1956)

Czaplicki v. The Hoegh Silvercloud

No. 342

Argued April 24, 1956

Decided June 11, 1956

351 U.S. 525


Petitioner, a longshoreman, was injured in 1945 while working on a ship when steps built by a contractor collapsed, causing him to fall. Shortly thereafter, he elected to accept compensation under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, and an award was made by a Deputy Commissioner. Payments thereunder were made by an insurer which had insured both petitioner's employer and the contractor who had built the steps. In 1952, petitioner filed a libel against the ship, her owners, her operators and the contractor who had built the steps, claiming damages for his injuries on grounds of unseaworthiness and negligence. He also tried unsuccessfully to join the insurer as a party.


1. An alleged procedural defect in the compensation award was not such as to prejudice petitioner or to deprive the Deputy Commissioner of jurisdiction to enter the award; and the award cannot now be set aside on that ground. Pp. 351 U. S. 528-529.

2. Under § 33(b) of the Compensation Act, petitioner's acceptance of the award had the effect of assigning his rights of action against third parties to his employer, to whom the insurer was subrogated; but that did not preclude petitioner from bringing the libel in the circumstances of this case, because petitioner's rights were held by the insurer -- the party most likely to suffer from enforcement of those rights. Pp. 351 U. S. 529-532.

(a) Even after the assignment, petitioner had an interest in his right of action against third parties, since any recovery must be apportioned between the employee and the assignee under § 33(e). Pp. 351 U. S. 530-531.

(b) Though § 33(d) gives the assignee control over enforcement of the employee's right of action against third parties, it should not be construed to enable the assignee to defeat the employee's interest in any possible recovery where there is such a conflict of interests as exists in this case. Pp. 351 U. S. 531-532.

(c) If the insurer is within the court's jurisdiction, it should be made a party to petitioner's suit. P. 351 U. S. 532.

Page 351 U. S. 526

3. Under § 33(a), petitioner's election to accept the compensation award instead of proceeding against third parties does not bar this suit in the circumstances of this case. Pp. 351 U. S. 532-533.

4. Though the statutes of limitations that might have been applicable had run, petitioner was not necessarily barred by laches on the present record from bringing this suit. Pp. 351 U. S. 533-534.

(a) Laches as a defense to an admiralty suit is not to be measured by strict application of statutes of limitations; it depends on the peculiar equitable circumstances of each case. P. 351 U. S. 533.

(b) Since the District Court did not consider the defense of laches, but dismissed the libel on other grounds, and the Court of Appeals held, on a record that was incomplete on the issue of laches, that it was barred solely because the statutes of limitations had run, the present record is inadequate to justify a holding that this libel is barred by laches. Pp. 351 U. S. 533-534.

(c) The existence of laches is a question primarily addressed to the discretion of the trial court, and the case is remanded to the District Court for further proceedings. P. 351 U. S. 534.

223 F.2d 189, reversed and remanded.

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