United States v. Seckinger

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Seckinger
LOCATION: 17th Judicial Circuit Green County Alabama Jury Commission

DOCKET NO.: 395
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1969-1970)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 397 US 203 (1970)
ARGUED: Jan 14, 1970
DECIDED: Mar 09, 1970

Facts of the case

Question

Media for United States v. Seckinger

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 14, 1970 in United States v. Seckinger

Warren E. Burger:

Number 395 United States against Seckinger.

Mr. Springer, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

James Van R. Springer:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

The question in this case is the meaning of a standard clause in Federal Government construction contracts which provides in pertinent part as follows.

The contractor, the construction contractor, shall be responsible for all damages to persons or property that occur as a result of his fault or negligence in connection with the prosecution of the work.

The Court of Appeals for the Firth Circuit has upheld the dismissal of the Government's complaint for indemnity under this clause.

Holding what this responsibility clause makes -- leaves the United States solely liable for any injuries that arise from concurrent negligence on both part of both the United States and the contractor.

In other words, the Fifth Circuit has read this clause is relieving the contractor of any obligation to indemnify the United States unless the contractor's negligence in the sole and exclusive cause of injury.

It might even stand, that the clause doesn't say anything about in indemnifying anybody?

James Van R. Springer:

Though if its -- it is the Fifth Circuit did treat it in general as an indemnity clause same would operate as an indemnity clause, if an only if the contractor with the sole cause of the injury.

Potter Stewart:

Well, it could be argued --

James Van R. Springer:

It's true that the clause does say responsible not -- it doesn't use the word indemnifying.

Now, I will pursue that point a bit further on.

As I say, we submit that this was wrong and that the responsibility clause must be read as shifting to the contractor as its words say and specifically under the facts in this case, full responsibility to pay all of the damages caused by its negligence regardless of the fact that the United States may also have been negligent.

Certainly, we believe it was improper for the courts below to dispose of this case on the pleadings without a trial in which the various pertinent facts relating to the contractor relationship between the parties and the facts of the accident itself could be explored.

The basic facts are as follows.

The Seckinger Company had a fixed price construction contract with the Navy Department in an amount of roughly $650,000.00 for the construction of outside steam pipes of the Paris Island Marine Depot in South Carolina.

Ernest Branham was an employee of Seckinger who has a welder and steamfitter.

On the day of the accident, Branham was working on a steam transmission plate that is being installed above ground across one of the streets at the base at a height of about 16 feet above the street.

A day or two before, the stretch of pipe crossing the street had been put in place on its supports by a crane.

But on the day of the accident, Branham and another worker were making certain adjustments in the positioning of the pipe in preparation for welding into the pieces of pipe on either side of the street to which at least to be connected.

Branham was working shortly before the accident on one side of the street and other man was working on the other side.

The construction foreman in charge of job, who was of course an employee of Seckinger, noticed that the man on the other side was having some difficulty and he directed Branham, the employee, to go over and help him.

In order to get there, Branham did not climb down to the street and walk across the street, but instead walked across the pipe itself which was about 20 inches in diameters.

And as he came near to the place where the other man was working, where he was to help him, he bumped into an uninsulated power line which was running -- which was strung along poles the normal way running parallel with the street at the edge of the -- at the sides.

Warren E. Burger:

By whom --

James Van R. Springer:

(Inaudible)

Warren E. Burger:

By whom has that power line been strung?

James Van R. Springer:

That was a Government-owned power line which one of the regular lines which provided power into the base.

I believe it was undisputed in that trial that this power system covered about a third of the whole base.