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Griffith v. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp.

decided as amended october 3 1979.: August 24, 1979.

THOMAS W. GRIFFITH
v.
WHEELING-PITTSBURGH STEEL CORPORATION, ET AL.; THOMAS W. GRIFFITH, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-2159; WHEELING-PITTSBURGH STEEL CORPORATION, APPELLANT IN NO. 78-2160; AMERICAN COMMERCIAL LINES, INC., APPELLANT IN NO. 78-2161



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 73-0706)

Before Gibbons, Weis and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Gibbons

Opinion OF THE COURT

Thomas W. Griffith, an employee of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation (Wheeling) commenced this action in August 1973 against his employer, and against American Commercial Lines, Inc. (American), the owner of barge No. 2730, pursuant to § 18(a) of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act Amendments of 1972. 33 U.S.C. § 905(b) (1976). He sought damages for injuries sustained on May 26, 1973 when he fell into the hold of barge No. 2730. Both defendants denied liability to Griffith, and each cross-claimed against the other for indemnification and contribution. Both also moved for summary judgment against Griffith and against each other on their respective cross-claims. The district court granted Wheeling's motion for partial summary judgment, dismissing Griffith's negligence claim against Wheeling, and barring any claim for contribution or indemnity by American against Wheeling.*fn1 The order granting partial summary judgment was entered as a final judgment, and this court then considered appeals by Griffith and American from that order. We reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.*fn2

Following a non-jury trial the district court held both Wheeling and American liable to Griffith on a negligence theory. It further found that Griffith had suffered compensatory damages in the amount of $209,299.45, but reduced his recovery by 25% Because it found that 25% Of those damages was attributable to Wheeling's negligence in a stevedoring capacity. On June 15, 1978, the court entered judgment against American for $104,649.73 (50% Of Griffith's damages) and against Wheeling for $52,324.87 (25% Of those damages) a total of $156,974.60.*fn3 All parties appeal from this final judgment. Once again we must remand for further proceedings.

I. FACTS

The facts respecting Griffith's employment in the Wheeling common labor pool at Allenport, Pennsylvania, his assignment on the day of the accident to work with a barge crew at the river landing, and the happening of the accident are detailed in our previous opinion. That appeal reviewed the summary judgment record. The trial court's findings of fact after the trial confirm that statement in all material respects, and we repeat it here.

Appellee Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation (Wheeling) operates a steel mill along the banks of the Monongahela River at Allenport, Pennsylvania. It first employed appellant Thomas Griffith on February 11, 1973, about four months before the date of the injury that was to become the subject of this action. He worked out of a common labor pool in the construction department and was assigned on a daily basis to a variety of land-based jobs. On April 1, 1973 Griffith bid into the hot mill labor pool, where as before he was assigned to various jobs on a daily basis. As part of this pool he was assigned to work at the company's barge landing on the river for a total of 33/4 days including the date of the accident on May 26, 1973.

On that day, plaintiff was assigned to work with the barge crew at the landing to assist in the loading of two barges. The barge on which the accident was to occur, No. 2730, was owned by defendant-appellant American Commercial Lines, Inc. (American). Three days earlier, on May 23, it had been delivered to Wheeling and was incorporated into the latter's "coal fleet" to await future use. On May 25, No. 2730 was relocated next to the seawall at the barge landing to take on a load of sheet steel which was destined to move down river to Louisville, Kentucky. A second barge, described as a pipe barge, was positioned next to No. 2730, and it too was to be loaded. The pipe barge was positioned immediately next to the seawall, and No. 2730 was lashed alongside further out on the river.

On the morning of the day of the accident, Griffith and the regular rivermen in the barge crew first loaded pipe into the pipe barge. During the loading of the pipe barge, which was completed before noon, Griffith worked on the seawall and barge. No. 2730 was then moved into position for loading by a procedure known as "rounding" in which a crane on the seawall pushed the barges away from the wall permitting the current to turn the boats around in the water so that No. 2730 was situated next to the seawall. Griffith's sole assistance during the procedure involved his throwing ropes from one barge to the other.

The crew then turned to the loading of No. 2730. At that time, Joseph Allfree, the crew's foreman, who was employed as river foreman by Wheeling, became aware that the barge covers were difficult to move. The wheels and track mechanism on which the covers ordinarily roll were without lubrication and were rusty and bent. At about 2:00 p. m. Allfree directed the crew to stop loading the barge and to close the covers. Allfree then returned to his office away from the area. The only other experienced riverman on the crew, Joseph Armstrong, then had difficulty closing one of the covers. A cable was attached from the crane on the seawall to the cover to pull it shut; a second cable was attached to an adjacent cover for leverage. Because eyelets on the stuck cover were missing, the hook at the end of the cable was attached to the lip on the underside of the cover. Both Armstrong and plaintiff were standing on top of the stuck cover when tension was applied to the cable. As the stuck cover began to rise they stepped back onto an adjacent cover, but that cover moved backward and the two men fell into the hold and both were injured.

521 F.2d at 34-35.

II. GRIFFITH'S APPEAL

Griffith's appeal contests the reduction of his recovery to $156,974.60. Griffith's § 905(b) claims were against the barge owner, American, on the theory that it had negligently furnished Wheeling a defective barge, and against Wheeling as owner Pro hac vice for negligently directing him to work on that unsafe barge. As noted, the trial court found in Griffith's favor on both of these claims. Both Wheeling and American contest liability to Griffith, and their contentions are addressed in Parts III and IV below. But neither contests the district court's finding of fact that Griffith suffered $209,299.45 in compensatory damages. Nor does either contend that Griffith, himself, was guilty of any negligence which contributed to the accident. In this Part we address the reduction of Griffith's damages on the assumption that the trial court's liability determinations in Griffith's favor are correct.

The court found that American was negligent in delivering a barge with defective cover mechanisms, knowing that workers such as Griffith would be exposed to risk of injury for those defects. It found that Wheeling, in its capacity as owner Pro hac vice of the barge, was negligent in failing to give adequate instructions to steelworkers unfamiliar with river work, in providing a defective barge for such work, and in failing to inspect, repair, or reject the defective barge. It also found that in its stevedoring capacity, as distinguished from its capacity as owner Pro hac vice, Wheeling was liable for the negligence of its employees, Griffith's fellow servants. The court allocated the responsibility for Griffith's injuries 50% To American, 25% To Wheeling as owner Pro hac vice, and 25% To Wheeling as stevedore. It then applied what has become known as the equitable credit doctrine to reduce Griffith's total recovery by 25%, representing the negligence attributable to his employer, Wheeling, acting in its capacity as stevedore.

In adopting the equitable credit doctrine the trial court decided the question which this court expressly reserved in Marant v. Farrell Lines, Inc., 550 F.2d 142, 147 (3d Cir. 1977). The theory behind that doctrine was that when Congress in the 1972 Amendments to the LHWCA eliminated the shipowner's strict liability to longshoremen for unseaworthiness, and at the same time created in § 905(b) a new negligence cause of action against the shipowner, it did not intend to impose liability upon the shipowner for that part of the longshoreman's damages attributable to the negligence of the longshoreman's employer. The workman's compensation remedy was said to cover that percentage of the damages. This statutory compensation was characterized as equitable in recognition of the fact that under § 933(c) of the Act the stevedore employer had a lien on the employee's third party recovery. Thus, in the absence of a credit principle, the stevedore might in some cases be fully repaid for its workmen's compensation payments by the shipowner, although its own employees were significantly responsible for the injury. The shipowner would then be left to bear the burden of the longshoreman's damage recovery, despite its lesser responsibility. It was thought to be equitable to prevent this result by reducing the longshoreman's negligence recovery in proportion to the percentage of the stevedore's negligence.

In Edmonds v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 443 U.S. 256, 99 S. Ct. 2753, 61 L. Ed. 2d 521 (1979), the Supreme Court reversed an En banc decision of the Fourth Circuit*fn4 which had applied the equitable credit doctrine to reduce a negligence recovery in a § 905(b) action against a shipowner by a percentage equal to the proportionate fault of the longshoreman's employer. The Court held that Congress did not intend to modify the longshoreman's pre-existing right to recover for his injuries in full against a negligent shipowner, even in cases where the negligence of the stevedore contributed to the injury. Whatever the conduct of the longshoreman's employer, a negligent shipowner is liable for the full amount of the longshoreman's damages. Justice White for the Court recognized that by virtue of the stevedore employer's compensation lien on the employee's third party recovery the Edmonds result may relieve a negligent stevedore even of the burden of statutory compensation payments, 443 U.S. 256 at -- , 99 S. Ct. 2753, 61 L. Ed. 2d 521, but found that circumstance was not decisive. So much for equitable credit.

Thus unless both Wheeling and American can prevail in their appeal on liability issues, a judgment must be entered in favor of Griffith against one or ...


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