Bradford Electric Light Co v. Clapper

Decision Date16 May 1932
Docket NumberNo. 423,423
Citation76 L.Ed. 1026,82 A.L.R. 696,52 S.Ct. 571,286 U.S. 145
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Stanley M. Burns and George T. Hughes, both of Dover, N. H., and William E. Leahy, of Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

[Argument of Counsel from page 146 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Robert W. Upton, of Concord, N. H., and John E. Benton, of Washington, D. C., for respondent.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 147-149 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action for damages was brought in a court of New Hampshire under the employers' liability provisions of the Employers' Liability and Workmen's Compensation Act of that state, N. H. Public Laws 1926, c. 178, to recover for the death of Leon J. Clapper, which the plaintiff claimed was due to his employer's negligence. The case was removed to the federal court on the ground of diversity of citizenship; the defendant, Bradford Electric Light Co., Inc., being a citizen and resident of Vermont and the plaintiff, Jennie M. Clapper, administratrix, being a citizen and resident of New Hampshire. It appeared that the company had its principal place of business in Vermont and lines extending into New Hampshire; that Leon Clapper, a resident of Vermont, was employed by it there as a lineman for emergency service in either state; and that, in the course of his duties, he was sent to restore some burned-out fuses at a substation in New Hampshire, and while doing so was killed. The company, invoking the full faith and credit clause of the Federal Constitution (article 4, § 1), set up as a special defense that the action was barried by provisions of the Vermont Compensation Act; that the contract of employment had been entered into in Vermont, where both parties to it then, and at all times thereafter resided; and that the Vermont act had been accepted by both employer and employee as a term of the contract.

The District Court ruled that the action was properly brought under the laws of the state of New Hampshire; that the action was based on a tort occurring in that state; and that the Vermont Workmen's Compensation Act had no extraterritorial effect. Accordingly, that court rejected the special defense and denied a motion to dismiss. The case was tried three times before a jury; the third trial resulting in a verdict for the plaintiff in the sum of $4,000. The judgment entered thereon was first reversed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. But upon a rehearing, the judgment of the trial court was affirmed, one judge dissenting. 51 F.(2d) 992, 999. The company filed in this Court both an appeal and a petition for writ of certiorari. The appeal was denied, and certiorari granted. 284 U. S. 221, 52 S. Ct. 118, 76 L. Ed. 254.

The Vermont Workmen's Compensation Act provides that a workman hired within the state shall be entitled to compensation even though the injury was received outside the state, Vermont General Laws, c. 241, § 5770; that 'employers who hire workmen within this state to work outside of the state, may agree with such workmen that the remedies under the provisions of this chapter shall be exclusive as regards injuries received outside this state by accident arising out of and in the course of such employment, and all contracts of hiring in this state shall be presumed to include such an agreement,' section 5774; that every contract of employment made within the state shall be presumed to have been made subject to its provisions, unless prior to the accident an express statement to the contrary shall have been made, in writing, by one of the parties, section 5765; and that acceptance of the act is 'a surrender by the parties * * * of their rights to any other method, form or amount of compensation or determination thereof,' section 5763. Neither the company nor Leon Clapper filed a statement declining to accept any provision of the Vermont act.

The New Hampshire Employers' Liability and Workmen's Compensation Act provides that the employer shall become subject to the workmen's compensation provisions of the act only by filing a declaration to that effect, N. H. Public Laws, c. 178, § 4; and that, even if the declaration is filed, the employee may, subsequent to the injury, still elect either to claim compensation, section 11, or to sue for damages at common law as modified by the employers' liability provisions of the act. Failure to file such a declaration exposes the employer to a common-law action of negligence in which the defenses of assumption of risk and injury by a fellow servant may not be interposed. Sections 2, 3. The company filed in New Hampshire the declaration provided for by its statute.

Thus, each state has a workmen's compensation law of the elective type; but their provisions differ sharply. The New Hampshire statute, unlike that of vermont, permits the employee or his representative to elect, after the injury, to sue for damages as at common law; and it was as a result of such an election made by the administratrix that the case at bar arose. The main question for decision is whether the existence of a right of action for Leon Clapper's death should be determined by the laws of Vermont, where both parties to the contract of employment resided and where the contract was made, or by the laws of New Hampshire, where the employee was killed.

First. It clearly was the purpose of the Vermont act to preclude any recovery by proceedings brought in another state for injuries received in the course of a Vermont employment. The provisions of the act leave no room for construction.1 The statute declares in terms that when a workman is hired within the state, he shall be entitled to compensation thereunder for injuries received outside, as well as inside, the state, unless one of the parties elects to reject the provisions of the act. And it declares further that for injuries wherever received the remedy under the statute shall exclude all other rights and remedies of the employee or his personal representative. If the acci- dent had happened in Vermont, the statute plainly would have precluded the bringing of an action for damages in New Hampshire under its Employers' Liability Act.2 For such action is predicated on a tort; and in Vermont an injury resulting from the employer's negligence is not a tort, if the provisions of the Compensation Act have been accepted. The question is whether the fact that the injury occurred in New Hampshire leaves its courts free to subject the employer to liability as for a tort; that is, may the New Hampshire courts disregard the relative rights of the parties as determined by the laws of Vermont where they resided and made the contract of employment; or must they give effect to the Vermont act, and to the agreement implied therefrom, that the only right of the employee against the employer, in case of injury, shall be the claim for compensation provided by the statute?

Second. If the conflict presented were between the laws of a foreign country and those of New Hampshire, its courts would be free, so far as the restrictions of federal law are concerned, to attach legal consequences to acts done within the state, without reference to the undertaking of the parties, entered into at their common residence abroad, that such consequences should not be enforced between them. But the conflict here is between the laws of two states; and the company, in setting up as a defense a right arising under the Vermont statute, invokes article 4, § 1, of the Federal Constitution, which declares that 'full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts * * * of every other State.' That a statute is a 'public act' within the meaning of that clause is settled. Modern Woodmen of America v. Mixer, 267 U. S. 544, 550, 551, 45 S. Ct. 389, 69 L. Ed. 783, 41 A. L. R. 1384; AEtna Life Insurance Co. v. Dunken, 266 U. S. 389, 393, 45 S. Ct. 129, 69 L. Ed. 342. See Tennessee Coal, Iron & R. Co. v. George, 233 U. S. 354, 360, 34 S. Ct. 587, 58 L. Ed. 997, L. R. A. 1916D, 685; Chicago & Alton R. Co. v. Wiggins Ferry Co., 119 U. S. 615, 622, 7 S. Ct. 398, 30 L. Ed. 519.3 A federal court sitting in New Hampshire is bound equally with courts of the state to observe the command of the full faith and credit clause, where applicable.4 The precise question for decision is whether that clause is applicable to the situation here presented.

Third. The administratrix contends that the full faith and credit clause is not applicable. The argument is that to recognize the Vermont act as a defense to the New Hampshire action would be to give to that statute an extraterritorial effect, whereas a state's power to legislate is limited to its own territory. It is true that full faith and credit is enjoined by the Constitution only in respect to those public acts which are within the legislative jurisdiction of the enacting state. See National Mutual Building & Loan Association v. Brahan, 193 U. S. 635, 647, 24 S. Ct. 532, 48 L. Ed. 823; Olmsted v. Olmsted, 216 U. S. 386, 395, 30 S. Ct. 292, 54 L. Ed. 530, 25 L. R. A. (N. S.) 1292.5 But, obviously, the power of Vermont to effect legal consequences by legislation is not limited strictly to occurrences within its boundaries. It has power through its own tribunals to grant compensation to local employees, locally employed, for injuries received outside its borders, compare Quong Ham Wah Co. v. Industrial Accident Commission, 255 U. S. 445, 41 S. Ct. 373, 65 L. Ed. 723, dismissing writ of error 184 Cal. 26, 192 P. 1021, 12 A. L. R. 1190; and likewise has power to exclude from its own courts proceedings for any other form of relief for such injuries.6

The existence of this power is not denied. It is contended only that the rights thus created need not be recognized in an action brought in another state; that a provision which Vermont may validly enforce in its own courts need not be given effect...

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