Landmark Cases, Part I

Landmark Cases, Part I
There are decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that are referred to as “landmarks”.  These landmark decisions are significant events in history in their own right.  They address/resolve/create national issues and controversies in the areas of constitutional and criminal law, politics, economics, and social, cultural, and religious practices and values.

Some of these Court opinions are unanimously decided; some are closely divided with strong dissenting opinions.  They all become the “law of the land”.

There have been many landmark Supreme Court decisions in our nation’s history.  Here are a few examples I would choose:

Marbury v. Madison
Gibbons v. Ogden
Dred Scott v. Sandford
Plessy v. Ferguson
Brown v. Board of Education
Griswold v. Connecticut
Roe v. Wade
Gideon v. Wainwright
Miranda v. Arizona
Schenck v. United States

The Longshore Act has its own landmark cases that are far reaching and enduring on their own relative scale.

My candidate for one of the foremost of these is Northeast Marine Terminal Co., Inc., et al. v. Caputo, et al.

The Caputo case was decided on June 17, 1977.  It was one of a series of cases that reached the Supreme Court seeking its interpretation of the provisions of the extensive 1972 Amendments to the Longshore Act.  Language from the Caputo decision is still regularly quoted in Longshore jurisprudence as authority on key issues.

The facts of the case, consolidating the claims of two New York City longshoremen, are not complicated.  The case involves typical maritime activities on the waterfront, although at the time of the injuries containerization was a brand new cargo handling technique and land side exposure was a brand new concept under the 1972 Amendments.

The coverage issues created by the 1972 Amendments are well known.  The Amendments changed what had simply been a “situs” test for coverage (the injury had to occur over the navigable waters of the U.S. (including any dry dock)) to a test involving not only an expanded landward situs but also a maritime “status” test for workers in the newly expanded landside coverage areas.  It was not at all clear in the immediate aftermath of the Amendments exactly who and what was now covered landside.

The Court had to “determine the reach of the ’72 Amendments.”  In doing so it established principles that are still followed today.

Probably the most often quoted excerpt from the Caputo decision is the following:  “The language of the Amendments is broad and suggests that we should take an expansive view of the extended coverage.  Indeed, such a construction is appropriate for this remedial legislation.”  Furthermore, “The Act ‘must be construed in conformance with its purpose, and in a way which avoids harsh and incongruous results.’” (Quoting in turn from Voris v. Eikel, 346 U.S. 328 (1953))

To make a long story short, longshoreman Ralph Caputo was injured while assigned duties on the day of his injury as a “terminal laborer” loading cargo on to a truck.  Longshoreman Carmelo Blundo was injured while unloading cargo not directly from a vessel but from a container located on a pier used only for stripping and stuffing containers and for storage rather than for loading and unloading vessels.  Neither longshoreman was injured in the act of removing cargo from a vessel and placing it dockside.

In deciding the issues of what today would be obvious examples of maritime employment covered by the Longshore Act, the Court used this early case (the injuries occurred in April 1973; the effective date of the 1972 Amendments was November 26, 1972) to resolve several important early questions.

Note:  Situs was met, since the injuries occurred in a terminal area contiguous with navigable waters.  The issue was the maritime status of the workers.

The Court acknowledged one of the primary purposes of the 1972 Amendments:  Congress intended to provide continuous coverage to amphibious workers such as longshoremen who, without the Amendments, would be covered for only part of their activity (the part over the water).  The problem of workers walking in and out of coverage back and forth over the water during the workday had been a significant contributing factor in producing the ’72 Amendments.

So in the Caputo decision the Court resolved the problem in what today we recognize as the uniform treatment principle that if any part of a worker’s regular duties is indisputably maritime in nature then that worker has 100% maritime status under the Longshore Act.  There is no walking in and out of “status”.

The employer in Caputo raised the “point of rest” theory as a defense.  They argued that the injured workers were handling cargo that had already reached its “point of rest” at dockside and thus were no longer involved in loading/unloading.  The Court rejected this theory in light of the expansive purposes of the Amendments and the realities of the longshoring occupation.

Today we recognize this in the principle that all workers who contribute to or facilitate the loading/unloading process are covered by the Longshore Act.  This includes all intermediate steps between the vessel and land transportation.

There is no “moment of injury” test for maritime employment status.  There is no “point of rest” for cargo at its first stop off the vessel.  The Longshore Act is a remedial statute which is to be liberally interpreted. These are the principles involved when we refer to the Caputo decision.


John A. (Jack) Martone served for 27 years in the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, as the Chief, Branch of Insurance, Financial Management, and Assessments and Acting Director, Division of Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation. Jack joined The American Equity Underwriters, Inc. (AEU) in 2006, where he serves as Senior Vice President, AEU Advisory Services and is the moderator of AEU's Longshore Insider.
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