370 U.S. 114 (1962), 532, Calbeck v. Travelers Insurance Co.

Docket Nº:No. 532
Citation:370 U.S. 114, 82 S.Ct. 1196, 8 L.Ed.2d 368
Party Name:Calbeck v. Travelers Insurance Co.
Case Date:June 04, 1962
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 114

370 U.S. 114 (1962)

82 S.Ct. 1196, 8 L.Ed.2d 368



Travelers Insurance Co.

No. 532

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 1962

Argued April 23, 1962




1. Injuries sustained by employees working on new vessels under construction and afloat upon navigable waters are not excluded from the coverage of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act by § 3(a) thereof, although recovery for such injuries may validly be had under a state workmen's compensation law. Pp. 115-131.

2. Acceptance by such an employee of payments under a state workmen's compensation law does not constitute an election of the remedy under the state law which precludes recovery under the Longshoremen's Act. Pp. 131-132.

293 F.2d 51, 52, reversed.

Page 115

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 3(a) of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act provides that compensation shall be paid only for injuries occurring on navigable waters "and if recovery . . . through workmen's compensation proceedings may not validly be provided by State law."1 In each of these cases, the petitioner is a Deputy Commissioner who based an award of compensation under the Act on findings that the employee was engaged at the time of his injury in the work of completing the construction of a vessel afloat on navigable waters.2

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Before the Longshoremen's Act was passed, this Court has sustained the validity of a state workmen's compensation [82 S.Ct. 1198] statute as applied to injuries suffered by an employee engaged in the completion of a launched vessel under construction on navigable waters, Grant Smith-Porter Ship Co. v. Rohde, 257 U.S. 469, but had made clear that state compensation statutes could not constitutionally be applied to injuries to employees engaged in repair work on completed vessels on navigable waters.3 The court below interpreted § 3(a) as adopting this distinction, and so set aside both awards, thus holding that a shipyard worker's right to compensation under the Act, if his injury is incurred on a vessel, depends not only on whether the vessel is on navigable waters, but also on whether the vessel was under repair, rather than under construction. Avondale Shipyards, Inc. v. Donovan, 293 F.2d 51; Travelers Insurance Co. v. Calbeck, 293 F.2d 52. We granted certiorari because of the importance of the interpretation of § 3(a) in the administration of the Act. 368 U.S. 946. We reverse the judgments of the Court of Appeals and affirm the judgments of the District Courts sustaining the awards.

The Court of Appeals' interpretation of § 3(a) would, if correct, have the effect of excepting from the Act's coverage not only the injuries suffered by employees while engaged in ship construction, but also any other injuries -- even though incurred on navigable waters, and so within

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the reach of Congress -- for which a state law could, constitutionally, provide compensation. But the Court of Appeals' interpretation is incorrect. The history of the Act, and of § 3(a) in particular, contravenes it; and our decisions construing § 3(a) have rejected it. Our conclusion is that Congress invoked its constitutional power so as to provide compensation for all injuries sustained by employees on navigable waters,4 whether or not a particular injury might also have been within the constitutional reach of a state workmen's compensation law.

The Longshoremen's Act was passed in 1927. The Congress which enacted it would have preferred to leave to state compensation laws the matter of injuries sustained by employees on navigable waters within state boundaries. However, in 1917, this Court had decided in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, that the New York Compensation Act could not, constitutionally, be applied to an injury sustained on a gangplank between a vessel and a wharf.5 It was held that the matter was outside state cognizance, and [82 S.Ct. 1199] exclusively within federal maritime jurisdiction, since to hold otherwise would impair the harmony and uniformity which the constitutional grant to the Federal Government of the admiralty power was meant to assure. While the Court acknowledged

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it would be difficult, if not impossible, to define with exactness just how far the general maritime law may be changed, modified, or affected by state legislation,

244 U.S. at 216, the opinion appeared to foreclose the application of a state compensation remedy to any maritime injury.

The Jensen decision deprived many thousands of employees of the benefits of workmen's compensation. Congress twice attempted to deal with the situation by legislation expressly allowing state compensation statutes to operate. Act of October 6, 1917, 40 Stat. 395; Act of June 10, 1922, 42 Stat. 634. But this Court struck down both statutes as unconstitutional delegations to the States of the legislative power of Congress, and as tending to defeat the purpose of the Constitution to achieve harmony and uniformity in the maritime law. Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149; Washington v. W. C. Dawson & Co., 264 U.S. 219.

Meanwhile, the Court handed down a number of decisions which appeared to modify Jensen by permitting States to apply their statutes to some maritime injuries. But we must candidly acknowledge that the decisions between 1917 and 1926 produced no reliable determinant of valid state law coverage. In Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233, decided in 1921, the Court upheld the jurisdiction of a United States District Court to entertain a libel in admiralty for damages for the death of a longshoreman under a state wrongful death statute. The Court reasoned that, while the subject was maritime, it was "local in character," and that application of the state statute

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.

257 U.S. at 242.

Page 119

Just a month later, the Court decided Grant Smith-Porter Ship Co. v. Rohde, supra, where, as in the cases before us, a shipbuilder's employee was injured while at work on new construction afloat on navigable waters. He recovered a judgment under a libel in admiralty, although Oregon had a state workmen's compensation law which made the remedy thereunder exclusive of all other claims against the employer on account of the injury. This Court reversed that judgment, holding that the accident was among those "certain local matters regulation of which [by the States] would work no material prejudice to the general maritime law." 257 U.S. at 477.

No dependable definition of the area -- described as "maritime but local," or "of local concern" -- where state laws could apply ever emerged from the many cases which dealt with the matter in this and the lower courts. The surest that could be said was that any particular injury might be within the area of "local concern", depending upon its peculiar facts. In numerous situations, state acts were considered inapplicable because they were thought to work material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, particularly in cases of employees engaged in repair work.6 On the other hand, awards under state compensation acts were sustained in situations [82 S.Ct. 1200] wherein the effect on uniformity was often difficult to distinguish from those found to be outside the purview of state laws.7

Thus, the problem which confronted Congress in 1927 had two facets. One was that the failure of Congress'

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attempts to shelter the employees under state compensation laws rendered it certain that, for many maritime injuries, no compensation remedy was available. The other was that the course of judicial decision had created substantial working uncertainty in the administration of compensation. Congress turned to a uniform federal compensation law as an instrument for dealing with both facets. Indeed, the Court in Dawson had invited such consideration, saying:

Without doubt, Congress has power to alter, amend or revise the maritime law by statutes of general application embodying its will and judgment. This power, we think, would permit enactment of a general Employers' Liability Law or general provisions for compensating injured employees; but it may not be delegated to the several States.

264 U.S. at 227.

The proposal of a uniform federal compensation act had the unqualified support of both employers and employee representatives. Workmen's compensation had gained wide acceptance throughout the country, and State after State was enacting it.8 But hard battles were fought in committee and on the floor in both Houses of Congress over the form of the law. The bill introduced in the Senate, S. 3170, became the basis of the law.

There emerges from the complete legislative history9 a congressional desire for a statute which would provide federal compensation for all injuries to employees on navigable waters; in every case, that is, where Jensen

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might have seemed to preclude state compensation. The statute's framers adopted this scheme in the Act because they meant to assure the existence of a compensation remedy for every such injury,10 without leaving

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employees at the mercy of the [82 S.Ct. 1201] uncertainty, expense, and delay of fighting out in litigation whether their particular cases fell within or without state acts under the "local concern" doctrine.

The gravity of the problem of uncertainty was emphasized when § 3 of S. 3170 in its original form was under discussion at the Senate Hearings. That version of § 3 provided:

This act shall apply to any employment performed on a place within the admiralty jurisdiction of the United States, ...

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