Howlett v. Birkdale Shipping Company, S.A.

RESPONDENT:Birkdale Shipping Company, S.A.
LOCATION:U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute

DOCKET NO.: 93-670
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1993-1994)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 512 US 92 (1994)
ARGUED: Apr 20, 1994
DECIDED: Jun 13, 1994

Carl D. Buchholz, III – on behalf of the Respondent
Charles Sovel – on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Howlett v. Birkdale Shipping Company, S.A.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 20, 1994 in Howlett v. Birkdale Shipping Company, S.A.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 13, 1994 in Howlett v. Birkdale Shipping Company, S.A.

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 93-670, Howlett against Birkdale Shipping Company will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In the course of loading or discharging cargo from maritime vessels, accidents can occur which injure longshoreman.

The injuries as can be, as they were alleged to be in this case, serious and disabling.

The two likely possibilities for compensation to the injured longshoreman are first, the ship owner, we say the vessel, and the second, the stevedore which is the longshoreman’s employer.

Before enactment of extensive 1972 amendments to the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act which is the statute that is involved in this case, the injured longshoreman could sue the vessel on a warranty of seaworthiness theory.

Now, then the vessel could often turn around and sue against the stevedore seeking indemnity of contribution on the theory that the stevedore was negligent in its supervision.

Of course this, meant lots of resources were diverted to lawsuits instead of to the payment for the injuries.

The 1972 Act changed the scheme.

The Act provides that the stevedore is liable regardless of fault and it provides a generous schedule of benefits for workman’s compensation.

Under Section 5(b) of the Act, however, the vessel is liable in a suit brought by the longshoreman if the vessel’s negligence caused the accident.

In this case, we assume the facts to be true as the case follows a summary judgment.

The longshoreman, Mr. Howlett, sustained serious injuries when he slips on a deck covered with a plastic covering or overlay.

He claimed the vessel was negligent because either one, a newly alleged dangerous condition or two, even if it did not it should have known that because it had a duty, according to Howlett, to inspect when the cargo was loaded at the foreign port.

Now the Courts of Appeals are not in agreement as to the vessel’s duty to inspect cargo operations in a foreign port and we took this case to decide among others at issue.

We hold that the vessel’s duty to warn of latent defects in the cargo stow is a narrow one.

The duty attaches only to latent hazards defined as hazards that are not known to the stevedore, and it would be neither obvious to nor anticipated by a skilled stevedore.

Ship owners engage a stevedore for its expertise in cargo operations and are entitled to assume that a competent stevedore would be able to identify and cope with defects in the cargo stow.

Furthermore, the duty encompasses only those hazards that are known to the vessel or should be known to it in the exercise of reasonable care.

The exercise of reasonable care does not require the ship owner to supervise the ongoing operations of the loading stevedore or to inspect the completed stow.

Though the precedents of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit are not necessarily in conflict with our holding, the decision in this case may have turned if I am not mistaken, assumptions as to the vessel’s actual knowledge.

We think the better course is to vacate and remand the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for further considerations in light of the principles we have discussed.

Our opinion in this case is unanimous.