253 U.S. 149 (1920), 543, Knickerbnocker Ice Company v. Stewart

Docket Nº:No. 543
Citation:253 U.S. 149, 40 S.Ct. 438, 64 L.Ed. 834
Party Name:Knickerbnocker Ice Company v. Stewart
Case Date:May 17, 1920
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 149

253 U.S. 149 (1920)

40 S.Ct. 438, 64 L.Ed. 834

Knickerbnocker Ice Company



No. 543

United States Supreme Court

May 17, 1920

Argued December 16, 1919




The Constitution, Art. III, § 2, Art. I, § 8, itself adopted and established, as part of the laws of the United States, approved rules of the general maritime law, and empowered Congress to legislate in respect of them and other matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. P. 160.

It took from the states all power, by legislation or judicial decision, to contravene the essential purposes of, or work material injury to, characteristic features of that law, or to interfere with its proper harmony and uniformity in its international and interstate relations. Id.

To preserve adequate harmony and appropriate uniform rules relating to maritime matters and bring them within the control of the federal government was the fundamental purpose, and, to such definite end, Congress was empowered to legislate within that sphere. Id.

There is a distinction between the situation created by the Constitution relative to maritime affairs and the one resulting from the mere grant of power to regulate commerce, without more. P. 161.

That clause of the provision granting otherwise exclusive admiralty and maritime jurisdiction to the federal courts (Judiciary Act, 1789, § 9; Jud.Code, §§ 24, 256) which saves to suitors "in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it" refers to remedies for enforcement of the federal maritime law, and does not create substantive rights or assent to their creation by the states. Pp. 159, 161.

The usual function of a saving clause is to preserve something from immediate interference, not to create. P. 162.

The legislature does not alter the law by expressing an erroneous opinion of it. Id.

Read with the explanatory report in the Senate and with the light of attendant circumstances, the Act of October 6, 1917, c. 97, 40 Stat. 395, which purports to amend Jud.Code, §§ 24 and 256, by adding to the saving clause "and to claimants the rights and remedies under the workmen's compensation law of any state" is to be construed

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as intending to obviate the objection pointed out in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, and as seeking to authorize and sanction action by the state in prescribing and enforcing, as to all parties concerned rights, liabilities, and remedies designed to provide compensation for injuries suffered by employees engaged in maritime work. Pp. 161 et seq. The attempted amendment is unconstitutional as being a delegation of the legislative power of Congress and as defeating the purpose of the Constitution respecting the harmony and uniformity of the maritime law. P. 164. The Hamilton, 207 U.S. 398, distinguished. P. 166.

226 N.Y. 302 reversed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

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MCREYNOLDS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

While employed by Knickerbocker Ice Company as bargeman and doing work of a maritime nature, William M. Stewart fell into the Hudson river and drowned August 3, 1918. His widow, defendant in error, claimed under the Workmen's Compensation Law of New York; the Industrial Commission granted an award against the company for her and the minor children, and both Appellate

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Division and the Court of Appeals approved it. Stewart v. Knickerbocker Ice Co., 226 N.Y. 302. The latter concluded that the reasons which constrained us to hold the compensation law inapplicable to an employee engaged in maritime work -- Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205 -- had been extinguished by

An act to amend sections twenty-four and two hundred and fifty-six of the Judicial Code, relating to the jurisdiction of the district courts, so as to save to claimants the rights and remedies under the workmen's compensation law of any state,

approved October 6, 1917, c. 97, 40 Stat. 395, c. 97.

The provision of § 9, Judiciary Act 1789 (c. 20, 1 Stat. 76, c. 20), granting to United States district courts

exclusive original cognizance of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, . . . saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it,

was carried into the Revised Statutes -- §§ 563 and 711 -- and thence into the Judicial Code -- clause 3, §§ 24 and 256. The saving clause remained unchanged until the statute of October 6, 1917, added "and to claimants the rights and remedies under the workmen's compensation law of any state."1

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In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen (May, 1917), 244 U.S. 205, we declared that, under § 2, Article III, of the Constitution ("The judicial power shall extend to . . . all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction"), and § 8, Article I (Congress may make necessary and proper laws for carrying out granted powers), in the absence of some controlling statute, the general maritime law as accepted by the federal courts constitutes part of our

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national law applicable to the matters within admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; also that "Congress has paramount power to fix and determine the maritime law which shall prevail throughout the country." And we held that, when applied to maritime injuries, the New York Workmen's Compensation Law conflicts with the rules adopted by the Constitution and to that extent is invalid.

The necessary consequence would be destruction of the very uniformity in respect of maritime matters which the Constitution was designed to establish, and freedom of navigation between the states and with foreign countries would be seriously hampered and impeded.

We also pointed out that the saving clause taken from the original Judiciary Act had no application, since, at most, it only specified common law remedies, whereas the remedy prescribed by the compensation law was unknown to the common law and incapable of enforcement by the ordinary processes of any court. Moreover, if applied to maritime affairs, the statute would obstruct the policy of Congress to encourage investments in ships.

In Chelentis v. Luckenbach S.S. Co., (June, 1918) 247 U.S. 372, an action at law seeking full indemnity for injuries received by a sailor while on shipboard, we said:

Under the doctrine approved in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, no state has power to abolish the well recognized maritime rule concerning measure of recovery and substitute therefor the full indemnity rule of the common law. Such a substitution would distinctly and definitely

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change or add to the settled maritime law, and it would be destructive of the "uniformity and consistency at which the Constitution aimed on all subjects of a commercial character affecting the intercourse of the states with each other or with foreign states."

And concerning the clause, "saving to suitors in all cases the right of a common law remedy where the common law is competent to give it," this:

In Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, we definitely ruled that it gave no authority to the several states to enact legislation which would work "material prejudice to the characteristic features [40 S.Ct. 440] of the general maritime law or interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations." . . . Under the saving clause, a right sanctioned by the maritime law may be enforced through any appropriate remedy recognized at common law, but we find nothing therein which reveals an intention to give the complaining party an election to determine whether the defendant's liability shall be measured by common law standards, rather than those of the maritime law.

Thus, we distinctly approved the view that the original saving clause conferred no substantive rights, and did not authorize the states so to do. It referred only to remedies, and, to the extent specified, permitted continued enforcement by the state courts of rights and obligations founded on maritime law.

In Union Fish Co. v. Erickson, 248 U.S. 308, an admiralty cause, a master sought to recover damages for breach of an oral contract with the owner of a vessel for services to be performed principally upon the sea. The latter claimed invalidity of the contract under a statute of California, where made, because not in writing and not to be performed within a year. We ruled:

The circuit court of appeals correctly held that this contract was maritime in its nature, and an action in admiralty thereon for its breach could not be defeated by the statute of

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California relied upon by the petitioner. . . . In entering into this contract, the parties contemplated no services in California. They were making an engagement for the services of the master of the vessel, the duties to be performed in the waters of Alaska, mainly upon the sea. The maritime law controlled in this respect, and was not subject to limitation because the particular engagement happened to be made in California. The parties must be presumed to have had in contemplation the system of maritime law under which it was made.

See also The Black Heath, 195 U.S. 361, 365.

As the plain result of these recent opinions and the earlier cases upon which they are based, we accept the following doctrine: the Constitution itself adopted and established, as part of the laws of the United States, approved rules of the general maritime law and empowered Congress to legislate in respect of them and other matters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Moreover, it took from the states all...

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