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U.S. Supreme Court

Rodriguez v. Compass Shipping Co., Ltd., 451 U.S. 596 (1981)

Rodriguez v. Compass Shipping Co., Ltd.

No. 79-1977

Argued January 12, 1981

Decided May 18, 1981*

451 U.S. 596


Section 33(b) of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act provides that a longshoreman's acceptance, pursuant to an award in a compensation order, of compensation from his employer for injuries incurred in the course of employment

"shall operate as an assignment to the employer of all right of the person entitled to compensation to recover damages against [a person other than the employer] unless [the longshoreman] shall commence an action against such third person within six months after such award."

Petitioner longshoremen, who had been injured aboard ship in the course of their employment, accepted compensation under such an award from their respective stevedore employers. More than six months after the awards, each petitioner commenced an action in Federal District Court against the shipowner involved, alleging that the shipowner had negligently caused his injury. The District Courts granted summary judgments for the shipowners (respondents) on the ground that, because petitioners failed to bring suit within six months of the compensation awards, their causes of action had been assigned to their employers, who thereafter had the exclusive right to pursue the third-party claims. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 33(b) precludes petitioners from pursuing their third-party claims against respondent shipowners. Pp. 451 U. S. 602-618.

(a) The language of § 33(b) is both mandatory and unequivocal. The only conditions precedent to the statutory assignment are the acceptance of compensation pursuant to an award in a compensation order and the passage of the required 6-month period, both of which conditions were satisfied in these eases. When such assignment occurs, it transfers to the employer the employee's entire right to commence a third-party action, the words "all right" in § 33(b) precluding the possibility of only a partial assignment or concurrent rights in the employee and employer to sue in the postassignment period. Although chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 451 U. S. 597

petitioners' employers failed to pursue the assigned claims, the statute does not expressly require that they do so, nor does it provide for relief to employees should the assigned claims lie dormant. Pp. 451 U. S. 602-604.

(b) Nothing in the legislative history shows any intent by Congress to preserve the employee's right to commence a third-party suit after the 6-month period expires. To the contrary, the history indicates that once that period expires, the employer possesses complete control of third-party claims. Moreover, the history forecloses the argument that Congress did not intend an assignment of a third-party claim to be effective unless there was an absence of any potential conflict of interest between the assignee and the longshoreman. The simple standard set forth in § 33(b) -- exclusive control of the cause of action in the employee for six months and in the employer thereafter -- protects the interests of both employees and employers, and is consistent with the Act's general policy of encouraging the prompt and efficient administration of compensation claims. Pp. 451 U. S. 604-612.

(c) There is no evidence that Congress gave the employee the right or procedural mechanism, after assignment, to compel the assignee either to bring a third-party suit or to reassign the cause of action to the employee in response to a formal request to do so. And Congress' failure to amend § 33(b) in 1972, when the Act was thoroughly reexamined, does not evidence congressional approval of a Court of Appeals' decision holding that, notwithstanding § 33(b), a longshoreman who has accepted compensation under an award may maintain a third-party action whenever it becomes evident that his employer has no intention to file suit on the assigned claim. Such legislative inaction does not modify the plain terms of § 33(b). Pp. 451 U. S. 612-617.

617 F.2d 955 and 622 F.2d 572 and 575, affirmed. STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 451 U. S. 598

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