Seas Shipping Co., Inc. v. Sieracki
328 U.S. 85 (1946)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Seas Shipping Co., Inc. v. Sieracki, 328 U.S. 85 (1946)

Seas Shipping Co., Inc. v. Sieracki

No. 365

Argued January 3, 1946

Decided April 22, 1946

328 U.S. 85

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. A shipowner's obligation of seaworthiness, traditionally owed by shipowners to seamen, extends to a stevedore who was injured while aboard and loading the ship, although employed by an independent stevedoring contractor engaged by the owner to load the ship. Pp. 328 U. S. 89-100.

(a) The obligation is essentially a species of liability without fault, and is neither limited by conceptions of negligence nor contractual in character. Pp. 328 U. S. 90-94.

(b) It is not confined to seamen who perform the ship's service under immediate hire of the owner, but extends to those who render it with his consent or by his arrangement. Pp. 328 U. S. 95-97.

(c) For purposes of the liability, a stevedore is a seaman, because he is doing a seaman's work and incurring a seaman's hazards, and he is entitled to a seaman's traditional protection. P. 328 U. S. 99.

2. By giving longshoremen the rights of compensation afforded by the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act and making them exclusive as against the employer, Congress has not withdrawn from longshoremen the protections gained under the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 or other protections relating to personal injury available to them under general maritime law. P. 328 U. S. 100.

Page 328 U. S. 86

(a) The Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act did not purport to make the stevedore's remedy for compensation against his employer exclusive of remedies against others, and it expressly reserved to the stevedore a right of election to proceed against third parties responsible for his injury. P. 328 U. S. 101.

(b) It did not nullify any right of a stevedore against the owner of the ship, except possibly when he is hired by the owner. P. 328 U. S. 102.

3. A right peculiar to the law of admiralty may be enforced either by a suit in admiralty or by one on the law side of the court. P. 328 U. S. 88.

4. The liability of a shipowner for failure to maintain a seaworthy vessel rests upon an entirely different basis from the liability of contractors and subcontractors who built the ship. Therefore, the shipowner would not be jointly liable with the builders, but would be liable severally. P. 328 U. S. 89.

5. When one of several defendants in a suit brings the cause here on certiorari and the others are not named as respondents or served in accordance with Rule 38(3), this Court is precluded from making any determination concerning the rights or liabilities of the other defendants. P. 328 U. S. 89.

149 F.2d 98 affirmed.

A stevedore employed by an independent stevedoring company sued a shipowner, the contractor who built the ship, and a subcontractor for injuries sustained while working aboard the ship as a result of a latent defect in a part of the ship. The District Court gave judgment against the contractor and subcontractor, but in favor of the shipowner. 57 F.Supp. 724. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed as to the shipowner. 149 F.2d 98. This Court granted certiorari. 326 U.S. 700. Affirmed, p. 328 U. S. 103.

Page 328 U. S. 87

MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The principal question is whether the obligation of seaworthiness, traditionally owed by an owner of a ship to seamen, extends to a stevedore injured while working aboard the ship.

Sieracki was employed by an independent stevedoring company which was under contract to petitioner to load its ship, the S.S. Robin Sherwood. On December 23, 1942, he was on the vessel loading cargo. The winch he operated was controlled by a ten-ton boom at number five hatch. One part of a freight car had been lowered into the hold. The second part weighed about eight tons. While it was being put down, the shackle supporting the boom broke at its crown, causing the boom and tackle to fall and injure respondent.

He sued petitioner and two other companies. These were the Bethlehem Steel Company, to which the Maritime Commission had awarded the contract for constructing the ship, and Bethlehem Sparrow's Point, Inc., which had built part of the ship under agreement with the steel company. The District Court found that the shackle had broken as the result of a defect which has occurred in its forging. The Bethlehem companies had purchased this equipment from another concern. Nevertheless, the court held they were negligent in not having tested it adequately before installing it. But the court considered petitioner to be under no such obligation to test, [Footnote 1] and therefore not negligent. Accordingly, it gave judgment against the two Bethlehem companies, but in favor of petitioner. 57 F.Supp. 724.

The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed as to petitioner. 149 F.2d 98, 102. Accepting the District Court's conclusion

Page 328 U. S. 88

that it was not negligent, the Court of Appeals was of the opinion that respondent should recover for the ship's lack of seaworthiness. [Footnote 2] The opinion emphasized that the decision was novel, noting "statements and assumptions each way." [Footnote 3] Because of the novelty and importance of the question, we granted certiorari. [Footnote 4] 326 U.S. 700.

The finding that the ship was unseaworthy is not disputed. Petitioner says, first, that the doctrine of unseaworthiness is peculiar to admiralty, and cannot be applied in a suit brought on the law side of the court. It also urges that, in any event, the liability may not be extended properly to the benefit of stevedores and longshoremen. And, finally, petitioner argues that, if the doctrine is properly so applicable, its liability is only secondary to that of the Bethlehem companies, which both courts found to be negligent, and therefore petitioner, the nonnegligent defendant, should not be held "jointly" liable with the negligent ones.

At the outset, we may dismiss the first contention. It is now well settled that a right peculiar to the law of admiralty may be enforced either by a suit in admiralty or by one on the law side of the court. Carlisle Packing Co. v.

Page 328 U. S. 89

Sandanger,259 U. S. 255, 259 U. S. 259; Garrett v. Moore-McCormack Co.,317 U. S. 239, 317 U. S. 243-244; Rhones v. Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., 37 F.Supp. 616. [Footnote 5]

Equally unavailable is the contention concerning the secondary character of petitioner's liability. That liability, if it exists, not only sounds in tort, [Footnote 6] but rests upon an entirely different basis from that upon which recovery has been had against the Bethlehem companies. Such a liability therefore would be not joint, but several, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals obviously went on this view. Moreover the contention necessarily affects the Bethlehem companies, at any rate in relation to possible claim of indemnity by petitioner. They have not been named as respondents here or served in accordance with Rule 38(3). Consequently we are precluded from making any determination concerning their rights or liabilities with relation either to petitioner or to respondent.

The nub of real controversy lies in the question whether the shipowner's obligation of seaworthiness extends to longshoremen injured while doing the ship's work aboard but employed by an independent stevedoring contractor whom the owner has hired to load or unload the ship.

Page 328 U. S. 90

There could be no question of petitioner's liability for respondent's injuries, incurred as they were here, if he had been in petitioner's employ, rather than hired by the stevedoring company. That an owner is liable to indemnify a seaman for an injury caused by the unseaworthiness of the vessel or its appurtenant appliances and equipment has been settled law in this country ever since The Osceola,189 U. S. 158. Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co.,321 U. S. 96, 321 U. S. 99, and authorities cited. And the liability applies as well when the ship is moored at a dock as when it is at sea. See, e.g., The Edith Godden, 23 F. 43; Johnson & Co. v. Johansen, 86 F. 886; The Waco, 3 F.2d 476.

Petitioner insists, however, that the obligation flows from, and is circumscribed by the existence of, the contract between the owner of the vessel and the seaman. Accordingly, since there was no such contract here, it says respondent cannot recover. Respondent is equally insistent that the owner cannot slough off liability to those who do the vessel's work by bringing an intermediary contracting employer between himself and those workers. In respondent's view, the liability is an incident of the maritime service rendered, not merely of the immediate contractual relation of employment, and has its roots in the risks that service places upon maritime workers and in the policy of the law to secure them indemnity against such hazards.

Obviously the norm of the liability has been historically, and still is, the case of the seaman under contract with the vessel's owner. This is because the work of maritime service has been done largely by such persons. But it does not follow necessarily from this fact that the liability either arose exclusively from the existence of a contractual relation or is confined to situations in which one exists.

Page 328 U. S. 91

The origins are perhaps unascertainable. [Footnote 7] But that fact, in itself, may be some evidence that contract alone is neither the sole source of the liability nor its ultimate boundary. For to assume this would be at once to project ideas of contract backward into centuries governed more largely than our own by notions of status, [Footnote 8] and to exclude from the protection all who do the work of the sea without benefit of contract with the owner. It may be doubted, for example, that he has ever been able to escape liability to impressed seamen, in whose cases to speak of "contract" would only rationalize a responsibility imposed regardless of consensual relationship. And it would hardly seem consistent with the obligation's benevolent purposes [Footnote 9]

Page 328 U. S. 92

the owner might nullify it by the device of having all who man the ship hired by others willing to furnish men for such service at sea or ashore.

It is true that the liability for unseaworthiness is often said to be an incident of the seaman's contract. But, in all instances which have come to our attention, this has been in situations where such a contract existed. [Footnote 10] Necessarily,

Page 328 U. S. 93

in such a setting, the statement could have no reference to any issue over liability in the absence of such a contractual relation. Its function, rather, has been to refute other suggested restrictions which might be held to apply on the facts. Most often, perhaps, these have been limitations arising from the erroneous idea that the liability is founded in negligence, and therefore may be defeated by the common law defenses of contributory negligence, assumption of risk, and the fellow servant rule. Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., supra; cf. Carlisle Packing Co. v. Sandanger,259 U. S. 255.

Because rationalizing the liability as one attached by law to the relation of shipowner and seaman, where this results from contract, may have been thought useful to negative the importation of those common law tort limitations does not mean, however, that the liability is itself contractual, or that it may not extend to situations where the ship's work is done by others not in such an immediate relation of employment to the owner. That the liability may not be either so founded or so limited would seem indicated by the stress the cases uniformly place upon its relation, both in character and in scope, to the hazards of marine service which unseaworthiness places on the men who perform it. These, together with their helplessness to ward off such perils and the harshness of forcing them to shoulder alone the resulting personal disability and loss, have been thought to justify and to require putting their burden, insofar as it is measurable in money, upon the

Page 328 U. S. 94

owner regardless of his fault. [Footnote 11] Those risks are avoidable by the owner to the extent that they may result from negligence. And, beyond this, he is in position, as the worker is not, to distribute the loss in the shipping community which receives the service, and should bear its cost.

These and other considerations arising from the hazards which maritime service places upon men who perform it, rather than any consensual basis of responsibility, have been the paramount influences dictating the shipowner's liability for unseaworthiness, as well as its absolute character. It is essentially a species of liability without fault, analogous to other well known instances in our law. Derived from and shaped to meet the hazards which performing the service imposes, the liability is neither limited by conceptions of negligence nor contractual in character. Mahnich v. Southern S.S. Co., supra; 234 U. S. S. 95

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