Scindia Steam Nav. Co., Ltd. v. Santos
Annotate this Case
451 U.S. 156 (1981)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Scindia Steam Nav. Co., Ltd. v. Santos, 451 U.S. 156 (1981)
Scindia Steam Navigation Co., Ltd. v. Santos
Argued December 1, 1980
Decided April 21, 1981
451 U.S. 156
Respondent longshoreman, an employee of respondent stevedore who was engaged by petitioner shipowner to load its vessel, was injured while working in the ship's hold when he was struck by cargo that fell from a pallet being held in suspension by a winch that was part of the ship's gear and was being operated by another longshoreman. The winch's braking mechanism allegedly had been malfunctioning for two days preceding the day of the accident, but there was a dispute as to whether the cargo fell because the suspended pallet was swinging back and forth or because the braking mechanism slipped while the pallet was suspended, and as to whether the shipowner knew or should have known of the alleged condition of the winch. Respondent longshoreman brought suit against petitioner under the provision of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act as amended in 1972, 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), which states that a longshoreman injured "by the negligence of a vessel . . . may bring an action against such vessel as a third party," and that the vessel's liability "shall not be based upon the warranty of seaworthiness." The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioner, holding that, under the negligence standards governing liability under § 905(b), a shipowner is not liable for dangerous conditions created by the stevedore's negligence while the stevedore is in exclusive control of the work, and that, even if petitioner knew or should have known of the defective winch, a shipowner has no duty to warn the stevedore or his employees of open and obvious defects. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, under the proper standard, petitioner had a duty to continue to inspect conditions of the vessel even if it had been turned over to the stevedore in safe condition, and that, if dangerous conditions subsequently developed, in light of the vessel's practical opportunities to discover and remedy the dangers, failure to do so could be negligence. Concluding that there were several material facts in dispute that were for a jury to resolve, the court remanded the case for further proceedings.
1. A shipowner has a duty to have the ship and its equipment in such
condition that the stevedore may carry on its cargo operations with reasonable safety; and if the shipowner fails at least to warn the stevedore of hidden danger which was known to the shipowner, or should have been known to him in the exercise of reasonable care, he is liable if his negligence causes injury to a longshoreman. But once the stevedore's cargo operations have begun, absent contract provision, positive law, or custom to the contrary, the shipowner has no general duty under § 905(b) by way of supervision or inspection to exercise reasonable care to discover dangerous conditions that develop within the confines of the cargo operations that are assigned to the stevedore. Thus, the shipowner is not liable to the longshoremen for injuries caused by dangers unknown to the owner and about which he had no duty to inform himself. This conclusion is consistent with Congress' intent under the 1972 Amendments of the Act to foreclose the shipowner's previous faultless liability based on a theory of unseaworthiness or nondelegable duty. The shipowner, within limits, is entitled to rely on the stevedore, and owes no duty to the longshoreman to inspect or supervise cargo operations. Pp. 451 U. S. 166-172.
2. However, there are circumstances in which the shipowner has a duty to act where a danger to longshoremen arises from the malfunctioning of the ship's gear being used in cargo operations. In this case, it is possible that the stevedore's judgment in continuing to use the winch despite its malfunctioning was so obviously improvident that petitioner, if it knew of the defect and that the stevedore was continuing to use it, should have realized the winch presented an unreasonable risk of harm to the longshoremen, and that, in such circumstances, it had a duty to intervene and repair the winch. The same would be true if the defect existed from the outset and petitioner must be deemed to have been aware of its condition. The stevedore's duties under positive law to provide a safe workplace and to use safeguards with respect to the ship's gear, as well as the vessel's justifiable expectations that those duties will be performed, are relevant in determining whether the shipowner has breached its duty. But an equally necessary inquiry is whether the pertinent statutes, regulations, or custom place or assume a continuing duty on the vessel to repair defective ship's gear being used by the stevedore in the cargo operation. Here, the record supports the Court of Appeals' holding that there was a triable issue as to whether the shipowner had actual knowledge of the alleged failure in the winch's braking mechanism or was chargeable with knowledge because the winch was defective from the outset. Thus, the District Court erred in granting summary judgment, and the case should be
returned to it and, if necessary, tried to a jury under appropriate instructions. Pp. 451 U. S. 172-179.
598 F.2d 480, affirmed and remanded.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined except BURGER, C.J., who took no part in the decision of the case. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 179. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 180.