Davis v. Department of Labor and Industries of Washington

Decision Date14 December 1942
Docket NumberNo. 86,86
Citation63 S.Ct. 225,1942 AMC 1653,87 L.Ed. 246,317 U.S. 249
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 317 U.S. 713, 63 S.Ct. 438, 87 L.Ed. —-.

Messrs. Alfred J. Schweppe, Maurice R. McMicken, and Otto B. Rupp, all of Seattle, Wash., for petitioner.

Mr. Edward S. Franklin, of Seattle, Wash., for respondent.

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 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 State of 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. of Wash.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 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 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 Pac. Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 216, 37 S.Ct. 524, 529, 61 L.Ed. 1086, L.R.A.1918C, 451, Ann.Cas.1917E, 900, 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, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 41(3), 371(3). May 17, 1920, this Court declared the Act unconstitutional. Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149, 40 S.Ct. 438, 64 L.Ed. 834, 11 A.L.R. 1145. June 10, 1922, 42 Stat. 634, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 41(3), 371(3), 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, 58 S.Ct. 749, 82 L.Ed. 1111. March 4, 1927, came the Federal Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Act, 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq., 33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq. Here again, however, Congress made clear its purpose to 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, 50 S.Ct. 306, 307, 74 L.Ed. 819. 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 The very closeness of the cases cited above and others raising related points of interpretation has caused much serious confusion.3 It must be remembered that under the Jensen hypothesis, basic conditions are factual: Does the state law 'interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of 'maritime law? Yet employees are asked to determine with certainty before bringing their actions that factual question over which courts regularly divide among themselves and within their own membership. As penalty for error, the injured individual may not only suffer serious financial loss through the delay and expense of litigation, but discover that his claim has been barred by the statute of limitations in the proper forum while he was erroneously pursuing it elsewhere. See e.g., Ayers v. Parker, D.C., 15 F.Supp. 447. Such a result defeats the purpose of the federal act, which seeks to give 'to these hardworking men, engaged in a somewhat hazardous employment, the justice involved in the modern principle of compensation', and the state acts such as the one before us which aims at 'sure and certain relief for workmen.'4

The horns of the jurisdictional dilemma press as sharply on employers as on employees. In the face of the cases referred to above, the most competent counsel may be unable to predict on which side of the line particular employment will fall. The employer's contribution to a state insurance fund may therefore wholly fail to protect him against the liabilities for which it was specifically planned. If this very case is affirmed for example, the employer will not only lose the benefit of the state insurance to which he has been compelled to contribute and by which he has thought himself secured against loss for accidents to his employees; he must also, by virtue of the conclusion that the employee was subject to the federal act at the time of the accident, become liable for substantial additional payments. He will also be subject to fine and imprisonment for the misdemeanor of having failed, as is apparently the case, to secure payment for the employee under the federal act. 33 U.S.C. §§ 938, 932, 33 U.S.C.A. §§ 938, 932.

We are not asked here to review and reconsider the constitutional implications of the Jensen line of decisions. On the contrary, even the petitioner argues that such action might bring about still worse confusion in an already uncertain field, and points out that state and federal agencies have made real progress toward closing the gap. There is much force in this argument. Since 1917, Congress and the states have sought to restore order out of the confusion which resulted from the Jensen decision. That success has not finally been achieved is illustrated by the present case. The Longshoremen's Act passed with specific reference to the Jensen rule, provided a partial solution. The Washington statute represents a state effort to clarify the situation. Both of these laws show clearly that neither was intended to encroach on the field occupied by the other. But the line separating the scope of the two being undefined and undefinable with exact precision, marginal employment may, by reason of particular facts, fall on either side. Overruling the Jensen case would not solve this problem. In our decision in Parker v. Motor Boat Sales, 314 U.S. 244, 62 S.Ct. 221, 86 L.Ed. 184, we held that Congress has by the Longshoremen's Act accepted the Jensen line of demarcation between state and federal jurisdiction. Obviously the determination of the margin becomes no simpler because the standard applied is considered to be embedded in a statute rather than in the Constitution. Nor can we gain assistance in this circumstance from the clause in the federal act which makes that act exclusive. 33 U.S.C. § 905, 33 U.S.C.A. § 905. That section gains meaning only after a litigant has been found to occupy one side or the other of the doubtful jurisdictional line and is no assistance in discovering on which side he can properly be placed.

There is, in the light of the cases referred to, clearly a twilight zone in which the employees must have their rights determined case by case, and in which particular facts and circumstances are vital elements. That zone includes persons such as the...

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