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Pfeifer v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. - 678 F.2d 453 (3d Cir. 1982)


A seaman injured by the tortious conduct of his employer is entitled to an award of damages commensurate with the nature and extent of his injuries. He is entitled to reimbursement for his loss of earnings, past and prospective; for any impairment of his earning capacity; for medical expenses incurred and to be incurred; and for any other economic loss he may have sustained or is likely to sustain. He is also entitled to redress for his physical injury, including the effects thereof, such as pain, suffering, mental anguish, discomfort, and inconvenience. If the injuries are permanent and result in an impairment of earning capacity, he may recover damages for such impairment, including but not limited to his probable loss of future earnings.


Plaintiff Howard E. Pfeifer was employed by the appellant  Jones & Laughlin (J&L) as a landing helper on its coal barges. On January 13, 1978, he slipped and fell because of ice and snow that had accumulated on the gunnel of a barge on which he was working. He struck a barge rail and landed on his tailbone, and a heavy electric motor that he was carrying fell in his lap. He has not returned to work since the accident. Pfeifer thereafter filed a third-party negligence action under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA) against J&L. The district court ruled in favor of Pfeifer, and held that J&L was negligent and that its negligence was the proximate cause of Pfeifer's accident and resulting injury. Accordingly, the district court determined that as a vessel owner pro hac vice, J&L was liable for negligence under § 5(b) of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act (LHWCA). In measuring damages, the district court multiplied Pfeifer's 1978 annual wage by his work life expectancy, deducted the amount of compensation Pfeifer had received under LHWCA, and subtracted his projected earnings at minimum wage from July 1, 1979, until his sixty-fifth birthday, taking judicial notice that the federal minimum wage at the time of the accident was $ 2.90 per hour. On appeal, J&L contended that because Pfeifer was its employee he does not have a cause of action for negligence under § 5(b) of LHWCA. Furthermore, J&L argued that the district court erred in applying the Pennsylvania damages test of Kaczkowski, and further in factoring damages on the basis of the minimum wage rate instead of wages for light duty.


Did the district court err in its decision to rule in favor of Pfeifer, and in its manner of computing the damages entitled to the employee? 




The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the district court, finding that under the LHWCA, 33 U.S.C.S. § 905(a), Pfeifer could hold J&L, an owner pro hac vice, liable for compensation. The Court found that the district court properly applied the "total offset method" for measuring Pfeifer’s damages as by presuming the discount factor was equal to and offset by the impact of inflation on the future economic value of the award. Furthermore, the Court approved the method as it reduced the need for speculation by making it unnecessary to discount lump sum awards to their theoretical present value.

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