317 U.S. 249 (1942), 86, Davis v. Department of Labor and Industries

Docket Nº:No. 86
Citation:317 U.S. 249, 63 S.Ct. 225, 87 L.Ed. 246
Party Name:Davis v. Department of Labor and Industries
Case Date:December 14, 1942
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 249

317 U.S. 249 (1942)

63 S.Ct. 225, 87 L.Ed. 246



Department of Labor and Industries

No. 86

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 14, 1942

Argued November 18, 1942




An employee of a construction company, which was a contributor to the workmen's compensation fund of the State, was employed in or about the dismantling of an abandoned bridge over a navigable stream, which involved cutting steel from the bridge, lowering it to a barge, and towing or hauling the barge, when loaded, to a storage place. He had helped to cut some steel from the bridge, and, at the time of the accident, was working on the barge, examining steel after it had been lowered and cutting the pieces to proper lengths, as necessary. While so employed, he fell or was knocked into the stream, in which his body was found.


1. That there is no constitutional objection to an award to the decedent's widow under the Washington Act, which provides compensation for employees, or dependents of employees, such as decedent,

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if application of the Act can be made "within the legislative jurisdiction of the State," and which expressly covers "all employers or workmen . . . engaged in maritime occupations for whom no right or obligation exists under the maritime laws," and that the Federal Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Act, under which no administrative action had been taken, did not exclude such application of the state law. P. 255.

2. certain employees such as decedent are in a twilight zone of jurisdiction, and the determination as to whether they are subject to a state act or to the Federal Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Act is largely a question of fact. P. 256.

3. Faced with this factual problem, courts will give presumptive weight to the conclusions of the appropriate federal authorities and to state statutes. P. 256.

4. Not only does the state Act in this case appear to cover the employee, aside from the constitutional consideration, but no conflicting process of federal administration is apparent. Under all the circumstances of the case, the Court relies on the presumption of constitutionality in favor of the state enactment. Giving full weight to the presumption, and resolving all doubts in favor of the Act, the Court holds that the Constitution is no obstacle to the petitioner's recovery. P. 258.

12 Wash.2d 349, 121 P.2d 365, reversed.

Certiorari, 316 U.S. 657, to review a judgment rejecting a claim made under the state workmen's compensation law.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, the Washington Supreme Court held that the state could not, consistently with the Federal Constitution, make an award under its state compensation law to

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the widow of a workman drowned in a navigable river. 12 Wash.2d 349, 121 P.2d 365. The circumstances which caused the court to reach this conclusion were these:

The petitioner's husband, a structural steelworker, was drowned in the Snohomish River while working as an employee of the Manson Construction and Engineering Company, a contributor to the Workmen's Compensation Fund of the Washington. Contributions of Washington employers to this Fund are compulsory in certain types of occupations, including the job for which the deceased had been employed. Rem.Rev.Stat. (1932) § 7674. That job was to dismantle an abandoned drawbridge which spanned the river. A part of the task was to cut steel from the bridge with oxyacetylene torches and move it about 250 feet away for storage there to await delivery to a local purchaser. The steel, when cut from the bridge, was lowered to a barge by a derrick, and, when loaded, the barge was to be towed by a tug, hauled by cable, or, if the current made it necessary, both towed and hauled, to the storage point. Three vessels which had been brought there along the stream for use by the employer in the work -- a tug, derrick barge, and a barge -- were all licensed by the U.S. Bureau of Navigation. The derrick barge was fastened to the bridge; the barge was tied to the derrick barge. Deceased had helped to cut some steel from the bridge and, at the time of the accident, was working on the barge which [63 S.Ct. 227] had not yet been completely loaded for its first carriage of steel to the place of storage. His duty appears to have been to examine the steel after it was lowered to the barge, and, when necessary, to cut the pieces to proper lengths. From this barge, he fell or was knocked into the stream in which his body was found.

The Washington statute provides compensation for employees and dependents of employees, such as decedent, if its application can be made "within the legislative jurisdiction of the state." A further statement of coverage

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applies the Act to "all employers and workmen . . . engaged in maritime occupations for whom no right or obligation exists under the maritime laws." Rem.Rev.Stat.Wash. §§ 7674, 7693a. A line of opinions of this Court beginning with Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 216, held that, under some circumstances, states could, but, under others, could not, consistent with Article III, § 2 of the Federal Constitution,1 apply their compensation laws to maritime employees. State legislation was declared to be invalid only when it

works material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, or interferes with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law in its international and interstate relations.

When a state could and when it could not grant protection under a compensation act was left as a perplexing problem, for it was held "difficult, if not impossible," to define this boundary with exactness.

With the manifest desire of removing this uncertainty so that workers whose duties were partly on land and partly on navigable waters might be compensated for injuries, Congress, on October 6, 1917, five months after the Jensen decision, passed an Act attempting to give such injured persons the "rights and remedies under the workmen's compensation law of any State." 40 Stat. 395. May 17, 1920, this Court declared the Act unconstitutional. Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149. June 10, 1922, 42 Stat. 634, Congress made another effort to permit state compensation laws to protect these waterfront employees, but this second effort was also held invalid. State of Washington v. W. C. Dawson & Co., 264 U.S. 219. March 4, 1927, came the Federal Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Act, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. Here again, however, Congress made clear its purpose to

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permit state compensation protection whenever possible by making the federal law applicable only "if recovery for the disability or death through workmen's compensation proceedings may not validly be provided by State law."

Harbor workers and longshoremen employed "in whole or in part, upon the navigable waters" are clearly protected by this Federal Act, but employees such as decedent here occupy that shadowy area within which, at some undefined and undefinable point, state laws can validly provide compensation. This Court has been unable to give any guiding, definite rule to determine the extent of state power in advance of litigation, and has held that the margins of state authority must "be determined in view of surrounding circumstances as cases arise." Baizley Iron Works v. Span, 281 U.S. 222, 230. The determination of particular cases, of which there have been a great many, has become extremely difficult. It is fair to say that a number of cases can be cited both in behalf of and in opposition to recovery here.2

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[63 S.Ct. 228]...

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