City of New York et al.,
Anjac Enterprises, Inc., Third-Party Plaintiff,
Macro Enterprises, Inc., Third-Party Appellant.
2000 NY Int. 155
The central issue here is whether Federal maritime law preempts New York Labor Law §§ 200, 240(1) and 241(6).
Plaintiff Willie Cammon, a foreman dock builder, was
injured while repairing a wood fender system
at the South Bronx
In order to repair the pier, plaintiff often worked
from a float stage in navigable waters, that was secured to the
land-based transfer station. At the time of the accident,
plaintiff was cutting timber from the bulkhead. While cutting,
he had to reach above his head. Using a chain saw, he would cut
a portion of the timber, attach the timber with a chain to a boom
from a crane and then cut the remaining portion of the timber.
The crane would then lift the timber and place it on a barge.
Plaintiff had just cut a portion of the timber and attached the
timber to the boom. He had not cut the remaining portion. A
passing tugboat created turbulence that moved the crane bar and
float stage. The timber, 12 inches by 12 inches by 12 feet and
weighing 200 pounds, came loose from the bulkhead. While still
Plaintiff commenced this action in Supreme Court, alleging violations of State Labor Law §§ 200, 240(1) and 241(6) against the City of New York and the general contractor, Anjac. Specifically, paragraph 16 of the complaint alleges:
The injury to plaintiff was caused by the negligence of the defendant and by its breach of the various provisions of Labor Law §§ 200, 240 and 241 and other federal, state and local statutes, ordinances and regulations.
Anjac asserted a third-party complaint against plaintiff's employer Macro, seeking contribution and indemnification.
The City and Anjac moved for summary judgment
dismissing the complaint upon the ground that Federal maritime
law preempts New York Labor Law. In the alternative, defendants
moved for summary judgment on their contractual and common-law
indemnification claims against third-party defendant Macro.
Plaintiff cross-moved for partial summary judgment on liability
on his Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6) claims. Supreme Court
granted defendants' motion for summary judgment to the extent of
The Appellate Division reversed and reinstated the complaint, holding that plaintiff's Labor Law causes of action were not preempted by Federal maritime law. The Appellate Division subsequently granted the defendants and third-party defendant leave to appeal to this Court and certified the following question: Was the order of this Court, which reversed the order of the Supreme Court, properly made? We agree with the Appellate Division that, under the circumstances presented, plaintiff's Labor Law claims are not preempted.
Initially, the parties agree that there is admiralty subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims. The existence of admiralty jurisdiction, however, does not resolve the question of which substantive law to apply.
Defendants and third-party defendant (hereafter
defendants) maintain that Federal maritime law should apply to
the exclusion of plaintiff's Labor Law claims because maritime
law does not generally impose liability without actual proof of
negligence. New York State Labor Law § 240(1), however, imposes
strict liability upon an owner or contractor (see, Zimmer v
Chemung County Performing Arts, , 65 NY2d 513). Thus, defendants
argue, to impose State liability standards where admiralty
jurisdiction exists would disrupt the uniformity of Federal
maritime law. In support, defendants rely on the First
In response, plaintiff argues that Federal maritime law does not preempt his Labor Law claims because there is no Federal law or interest directly impacted by their implementation. Consequently, plaintiff contends, uniformity of maritime law would not be affected by allowing State law claims here. Plaintiff also maintains that New York has an important interest in regulating safe construction practices within its borders and that there is a presumption against restricting exercise of its police powers to protect the health and safety of its citizens.
The fact that Federal maritime law is involved does not
necessarily mean that State law is superseded. [T]he exercise
of admiralty jurisdiction * * * does not result in automatic
displacement of state law (Yamaha Motor Corp. USA v Calhoun, 516 US 199, 206). Thus, Federal-court jurisdiction over such cases
Federal maritime law often encompasses State law (Yamaha Motor Corp. USA v Calhoun, 516 US 199, 206). In Western Fuel Co. v Garcia (257 US 233), for example, the United States Supreme Court held that the widow of a maritime worker killed in California territorial waters could bring a wrongful death action in an admiralty court, reasoning that:
The subject is maritime and local in character and the specified modification of or supplement to the rule applied in admiralty courts when following the common law, will not work material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, nor interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations
(id. at 242).
Just a month later, in Grant Smith-Porter Ship Co. v Rohde (257 US 469), the Court applied the maritime but local rule where a carpenter's injury occurred in navigable waters. In concluding that State compensation law should apply, the Court stated that as to certain local matters regulation of which would work no material prejudice to the general maritime law, the rules of the latter might be modified or supplemented by State statutes (id. at 477). In subsequent cases, the Court has employed the maritime but local exception to allow the application of State law in other contexts (see, e.g., Askew v American Waterways Operators, Inc., 411 US 325 [regulation of sea-to-shore pollution]; Wilburn Boat Co. v Fireman's Fund Ins., 348 US 310 [regulation of maritime insurance]). Plaintiff's theory of liability arises under New York Labor Law §§ 240(1) and 241(6). Given that protection of workers engaged in maritime activities is an objective of Federal maritime law (Yamaha v Calhoun, 516 US at 214-215), this case is unlikely to disrupt Federal maritime activity (Grubart, 513 US at 533-534). State application of strict liability here will not unduly interfere with the federal interest in maintaining the free flow of maritime commerce (American Dredging, 510 US at 458, [Souter, J., concurring]). Local regulations that do not affect vessel operations but rather govern liability issues with respect to landowners and contractors within the State, have no extraterritorial effect.
Nor is the concept of strict liability necessarily antithetical to Federal Maritime Law. States may have important interests justifying the application of a strict liability statute. Most significantly, recognizing the importance of State police powers to protect the health and safety of its citizens in Askew v American Waterways (411 US 325), the Supreme Court authorized application of a state strict liability statute notwithstanding the general admiralty principle prohibiting strict liability for negligence.
Strict liability causes of action exist for personal
injury claims based upon violations of statutory duty (see,
Kernan v American Dredging Co., 355 US 426 [employer held liable
for death of seaman, without a showing of negligence, where death
resulted from violation of Coast Guard regulations]). Similarly,
strict liability is a part of Federal maritime products liability
law (see, East River S.S. Corp. v Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 US 858, 865-866). Likewise, maritime law permits recovery in
strict liability when a shoreside contractor causes injury to a
marine worker as a result of the contractor's breach of warranty
(see, Chisolm v UHP Projects, Inc., 205 F3d 731, 734 [4th Cir.
2000]). The doctrine of seaworthiness also provides an absolute
and nondelegable duty to provide a seaworthy ship (see, Mitchell
v Trawler Racer, Inc., 362 US 539, 549-550).
New York's Labor Law is a local regulation enacted to
protect the health and safety of its workers. As the Appellate
Division properly concluded, application of the Labor Law--a
local regulation governing liability of landowners and
contractors acting within the State (see generally, Padula v
Lilam Properties Corp., , 84 NY2d 519)--will not unduly interfere
with a fundamental characteristic of maritime law or unduly
hamper maritime commerce. Indeed, many Labor Law provisions such
as sections 200(1) and 241(6) allow for liability predicated on
fault and are wholly consistent with the laudatory maritime goal
of compensating injured maritime workers. Furthermore, under
these circumstances, where the tort was maritime but local and
there are no far-reaching implications for vessels, seafarers or
entities engaged in maritime commercial transactions, there is no
threat to the uniformity of Federal maritime law sufficient to
displace application of an important State health and safety
measure, even though it may impose strict liability (see, Gravatt
v City of New York, 1998 WL 171491, at *12 [SDNY] [protecting
workers employed in the [S]tate is within the historic police
powers of the State and there is no 'clear and manifest'
We conclude our analysis with the following observation. Choice of law in the admiralty context, generally, is not an easy inquiry. That is particularly true in this case: plaintiff was injured while on a floating raft on navigable waters, but at the same time the raft was anchored to a land- based transfer station, and the work at issue was repair to a land structure. In a case such as this, our decision to affirm is influenced by the Labor Law's strong State interest in protecting workers (see e.g., Melber v 6333 Main Street, Inc., , 91 NY2d 759, 762; Zimmer v Chemung County Performing Arts, Inc., , 65 NY2d 513, 520-521). Because strict liability is not wholly at odds with Federal maritime principles, we see no reason for the Labor Law's provisions to be displaced in the context of this local land-based repair.
Finally, we underscore that we reach only the preemption issue, the only question decided by the Appellate Division, and we reach no other issue regarding the validity of plaintiff's claims under the Labor Law.
Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed, with costs, and the certified question answered in the affirmative.
We concur with the majority insofar as it holds that maritime law does not preempt Labor Law § 200 or § 241(6). In our view, however, maritime law preempts Labor Law § 240(1) and we therefore dissent in part.
As a threshold matter, admiralty jurisdiction exists in
this case (see, Grubart v Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 US 527). Plaintiff was injured as he stood on a "float stage" in
navigable waters. At the time of the accident, plaintiff was
repairing a wood fender system on a pier extending over the East
River. The City of New York owned the pier and used it in
connection with its garbage transfer station. The fender system
protected the pier from arriving and departing garbage barges.
The cause of plaintiff's injury is traceable to a passing
tugboat, which created a wake that disrupted a moored
construction barge. Plaintiff was cutting a piece of timber from
the fender system. A crane mounted to the construction barge
secured the timber. When the tugboat's wake disrupted the barge,
the crane dislodged the timber and, in the process, the timber
struck plaintiff. Accordingly, both the construction work and
The conflict between Labor Law § 240(1) and maritime law could not be plainer: Under Labor Law § 240(1), an injured worker's contributory negligence does not reduce a defendant's liability. Under maritime law, it does. The conflict is irreconcilable. And it is a matter of no small consequence, considering that these doctrines go to the very heart of liability and recovery, and directly implicate the harmonious administration of maritime law.
The United States Supreme Court has explained that
"admiralty has developed and now follows its own * * * more
flexible rule which allows * * * consideration of contributory
negligence in mitigation of damages as justice requires" (see,
Pope & Talbot v Hawn,
As the majority has repeatedly emphasized, States have important interests that must be recognized in any preemption analysis. In keeping with the "savings to suitors" clause, however, those interests -- and we subscribe to their obvious importance -- must be adjusted so they conform to an established, predictable body of maritime law. In the end, it is a matter of accommodation.
The Supreme Court has held that a State may "'adopt
such remedies, and to attach to them such incidents, as it sees
fit' so long as it does not attempt to make changes in the
'substantive maritime law'" (Madruga v Superior Ct. (346 US 556,
561 [quoting Red Cross Line v Atlantic Fruit Co., 264 US 109,
124]). The Supreme Court has also held that a defendant's
liability must be measured under maritime principles instead of
In American Dredging Co. v Miller (510 US 443), the
United States Supreme Court applied a well established two-part
test governing admiralty common law preemption. A court must
determine whether state law (i) works material prejudice to a
characteristic feature of maritime law, or (ii) interferes with
the harmony and uniformity of maritime law (see, American
Dredging Co., 510 US, at 447,
Over the years, the Supreme Court has employed various
formulations for identifying characteristic features of maritime
law (see, e.g., Madruga,
Although its origins are shrouded,
common law suggests that comparative fault first appeared in
admiralty and medieval sea codes.
When comparative fault
arrived on our shores, it was on the shoulders of English
The United States Supreme Court's decisions in Pope
& Talbot, Inc. (346 US 406,
Moreover, Labor Law § 240(1) would materially prejudice the maritime doctrine of comparative fault. In a single cause of action, strict liability and comparative negligence cannot occupy the same ground. Applying strict liability would not only "materially prejudice" the comparative fault doctrine, it would eviscerate it. In this respect, Labor Law § 240(1) differs from Labor Law §§ 200 and 241(6). The latter create a statutory standard of care that would not otherwise exist in maritime law, but nevertheless do not invade maritime law's bedrock principles as to fault allocation. In our view, the first prong of American Dredging Co. is fully satisfied. So is the second.
Preemption is required under that prong if application
of state law interferes with the "'proper harmony and
uniformity'" of maritime law in its "'international and
interstate relations'" (see, American Dredging Co., 510 US, at
This all makes good sense. Considering that the desired goals are uniformity and harmony, it is difficult to see how these objectives can be unimpaired (or left with even a semblance of harmony) if the rules vary with the locale. One State may opt for strict liability, another for contributory negligence as a bar to recovery, and yet another may interpose assumption of risk, while others would be free to fashion even more variants or different rules. The uniformity prong is important so that predictability will prevail over happenstance.
In American Dredging Co. (510 US, at 453,
We disagree with the unpublished decision of the United States District Court in Gravatt v City of New York (1998 WL 171491 [SDNY]). Gravatt is not binding on this Court, and we are not convinced by its reasoning. In that case, the court identified other instances in which strict liability appears in maritime law and laid considerable stress on the point. The issue, however, is not whether maritime law recognizes strict liability principles in other instances. Surely it does. But that is not relevant to the analysis at hand, because in our case, maritime law undisputedly calls for the application of comparative fault.
Grant Smith-Porter Ship Co. v Rohde (257 US 469) does
not support plaintiff's position. Rohde was a fact specific case
that is distinguishable from the one before us. The primary
issue was whether a state worker's compensation statute could
limit an employee's right to sue his employer for additional
damages beyond the benefits provided under worker's compensation.
The Supreme Court concluded that "the parties contracted with
reference to the state statute; their rights and liabilities had
None of the other cases upon which the majority relies
involved the displacement of a maritime law feature as
fundamental as comparative fault (see, e.g., Yamaha Motor Corp.
USA v Calhoun,
Closer in point is Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources
v Kellum (51 F3d 1220 [4th Cir]). There, the Court held that
maritime comparative fault principles preempted a Maryland
statute that "significantly changed the standard of care owed by
the defendants from ordinary care, as equated with negligence, to
that of strict liability" (51 F3d , at 1228,
We would modify the order of the Appellate Division and hold that federal admiralty law preempts Labor Law § 1).
1 A fender system is a series of pilings and wooden cross pieces within the pier at the water's edge, designed to protect the pier from impact of other vessels leaving and entering the pier.
2 Seaworthiness is a strict liability doctrine applicable to seamen (see, Mahnich v Southern S.S. Co., 321 US 96). While the doctrine was extended to longshore workers in Seas Shipping Co. v Sieracki (328 US 85), Congress negated the extension in amending the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act in 1972 (33 USC § 901).
5 See, 28 USC § 1333 (1). The "savings to suitors" clause underlies a venerable doctrine, which has been with us since the beginnings of our Republic. It found early expression in the Judiciary Act of 1789 (§ 9, 1 Stat. 73, 76-77) and preserves the jurisdiction of state courts to entertain in personam maritime causes of action (see, Madruga v Superior Ct., 346 US 556, 560- 561).
6 Scholars have found comparative fault principles as far back as the Digest of Justinian -- completed in 533 A.D. (see, Mole and Wilson, A Study of Comparative Negligence, 17 Cornell L Quarterly 333, 337 ; see also, Leibman et al., The Effect of Lifting the Blindfold From Civil Juries Charged with Apportioning Damages in Modified Comparative Fault Cases: An Empirical Study of the Alternatives, 35 Am Bus LJ 349, 355-356 ).
7 See, Turk, Comparative Negligence on the March, 28 Chi-Kent
L Rev 189, 220-25 ; Mole and Wilson,