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U.S. Supreme Court

Edmonds v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 443 U.S. 256 (1979)

Edmonds v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique

No. 78-479

Argued March 19, 1979

Decided June 27, 1979

443 U.S. 256


Petitioner longshoreman, while employed by a stevedoring concern that respondent shipowner had engaged to unload cargo from its vessel, was injured in the course of that work, and received benefits for the injury from his employer under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (Act). Petitioner also brought this negligence action against respondent in Federal District Court, wherein the jury determined that petitioner was responsible for 10% of the total negligence resulting in his injury, that the stevedore's fault, through a coemployee's negligence, contributed 70%, and that respondent was accountable for 20%. Following established maritime law, the District Court reduced the award to petitioner by the 10% attributed to his own negligence, but refused further to reduce the award against respondent in proportion to the fault of the stevedore employer. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the 1972 Amendments to the Act 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.


1. Under the 1972 Amendments to the Act, Congress did not intend to change the judicially created admiralty rule that the shipowner can be made to pay all the damages not due to the plaintiff's own negligence by imposing a proportionate fault rule. Pp. 443 U. S. 263-271.

(a) There is no conflict between the provisions of the Amendments that (1) in the event of injury to a person covered by the Act "caused by the negligence of a vessel," such person may bring an action against the vessel as a third party, 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 be void, and (2) 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." The first provision addresses the recurring situation, such as in this case, where the party injured by the vessel's negligence is a longshoreman employed by a stevedoring concern, and does not purport to modify the traditional

Page 443 U. S. 257

admiralty rule. The second provision applies only to the less familiar arrangement where the ship is its own stevedore, and is to be construed as permitting a third-party suit against the shipowner stevedore when negligence in its nonstevedoring capacity contributes to the injury. Pp. 443 U. S. 263-266.

(b) The legislative history does not support the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the statute, which modifies the longshoreman's preexisting rights against the negligent vessel. Pp. 443 U. S. 266-268.

(c) While some inequity appears inevitable in the present statutory scheme, and while the Court of Appeals' proportionate fault rule may remove some of the inequities, nevertheless it creates others and appears to shift some burdens to the longshoreman. There is nothing to indicate and it will not be presumed that Congress intended to place the burden of the inequity on the longshoreman whom the Act seeks to protect. Pp. 443 U. S. 268-271.

2. Nor will this Court change the traditional rule so as to make the vessel liable only for the damages in proportion to its own negligence. By now changing what Congress understood to be the law and did not itself wish to modify, this Court might knock out of kilter the delicate balance effected by Congress concerning the liability of vessels, as third parties, to pay damages to longshoremen who are injured while engaged in stevedoring operations. This Court should stay its hand in these circumstances. Pp. 443 U. S. 271-273.

577 F.2d 1153, reversed and remanded.

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. 443 U. S. 273. POWELL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 443 U. S. 258

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