Middleton v. Texas Power Light Co

Citation39 S.Ct. 227,63 L.Ed. 527,249 U.S. 152
Decision Date03 March 1919
Docket NumberNo. 102,102
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. Charles B. Braun, of Waco, Tex., for plaintiff in error.

Messrs. Harry P. Lawther and Alexander Pope, both of Dallas, Tex., for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice PITNEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

Alleging that in the month of December, 1913, he was in the employ of the Texas Power & Light Company in the state of Texas, and while so employed received serious personal injuries through the bursting of a steam pipe due to the negligence of his employer and its agents, Middleton sued the company in a district court of that state to recover his damages. The defendant interposed an answer in the nature of a plea in abatement setting up that at the time of the accident and at the commencement of the action defendant was the holder of a policy of liability and compensation insurance, issued in its favor by a company lawfully transacting such business in the state, conditioned to pay the compensation provided by the Texas Workmen's Compensation Act, which was approved April 16, 1913, and took effect on the 1st day of September in that year (chapter 179, Acts of 33d Legislature, [Vernon's Sayles' Ann. Civ. St. 1914, arts. 5246h-5246zzzz]) of which fact the plaintiff had proper and timely notice as provided by the act; and that no claim for the compensation provided in the act with respect to the alleged injury had been made by plaintiff, but on the contrary he had refused to receive such compensation, with other matters sufficient to bring defendant within the protection of the act. Plaintiff took a special exception in the nature of a demurrer, upon the ground (among others) that the act was in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The exception was overruled, the plea in abatement sustained, and the action dismissed. On appeal to the Court of Civil Appeals it was at first held that the judgment must be reversed (178 S. W. 956); but upon an application for a rehearing the constitutional questions were certified to the Supreme Court of the state. That court sustained the constitutionality of the law (108 Tex. 96, 185 S. W. 556); and in obedience to its opinion the Court of Civil Appeals set aside its former judgment and affirmed the judgment of the district court. Thereupon the present writ of error was sued out under section 237, Judicial Code (Act March 3, 1911, c. 231, 36 Stat. 1156), as amended by Act of September 6, 1916, c. 448, § 2, 39 Stat. 726 (Comp. St. § 1214).

Thus we have presented, from the standpoint of an objecting employe, the question whether the Texas Employers' Liability Act is in conflict with the due process and equal protection provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The act creates an employers' insurance association, to which any employer of labor in the state, with exceptions to be mentioned, may become a subscriber; and out of the funds of this association, derived from premiums on policies of liability insurance issued by it to subscribing members and assessments authorized against them if necessary, the compensation provided by the act as due on account of personal injuries sustained by their employes, or on account of death resulting from such injuries, is to be paid. This is a stated compensation, fixed with relation to the employe's average weekly wages, and accrues to him absolutely when he suffers a personal injury in the course of his employment incapacitating him from earning wages for as long a period as one week, or to his representatives or beneficiaries in the event of his death from such injury, whether or not it be due to the negligence of the employer or his servants or agents. Such compensation is the statutory substitute for damages otherwise recoverable because of injuries suffered by an employe, or his death occasioned by such injuries, when due to the negligence of the employer or his servants; it being declared that the employe of a subscribing employer, or his representatives or beneficiaries in case of his death, shall have no cause of action against the employer for damages except where a death is caused by the willful act or omission or gross negligence of the employer. Employers who do not become subscribers are subject as before to suits for damages based on negligence for injuries to employes or for death resulting therefrom, and are deprived of the so-called 'common-law defenses' of fellow servant's negligence and assumed risk, and also of contributory negligence as an absolute defense, it being provided that for contributory negligence damages shall be diminished except where the employer's violation of a statute enacted for the safety of employes contributes to the injury or death; but that where the injury is caused by the willful intention of the employe to bring it about the employer may defend on that ground. Every employer becoming a subscriber to the insurance association is required to give written or printed notice to all his employes that he has provided for the payment by the association of compensation for injuries received by them in the course of their employment. Under certain conditions an employer holding a liability policy issued by an insurance company lawfully transacting such business within the state is to be deemed a subscriber within the meaning of the act. There are administrative provisions, including procedure for the determination of disputed claims. By section 2 of part 1 (Vernon's Sayles' Ann. Civ. St. 1914, art. 5246hh) it is enacted as follows:

'The provisions of this act shall not apply to actions to recover damages for the personal injuries or for death resulting from personal injuries sustained by domestic servants, farm laborers, nor to the employes of any person, firm or corporation operating any railway as a common carrier, nor to laborers engaged in working for a cotton gin, nor to employes of any person, firm or corporation having in his or their employ not more than five employes.'

Following the order adopted in the argument of plaintiff in error, we deal first with the contention that the act amounts to a denial of the equal protection of the laws. This is based in part upon the classification resulting from the provisions of the section just quoted, it being said that employes of the excepted classes are left entitled to certain privileges which by the act are denied to employes of the non-excepted classes, without reasonable basis for the distinction.

Of course plaintiff in error, not being an employe in any of the excepted classes, would not be heard to assert any grievance they might have by reason of being excluded from the operation of the act. Southern Ry. Co. v. King, 217 U. S. 524, 534, 30 Sup. Ct. 594, 54 L. Ed. 868; Standard Stock Food Co. v. Wright, 225 U. S. 540, 550, 32 Sup. Ct. 784, 56 L. Ed. 1197; Rosenthal v. New York, 226 U. S. 260, 271, 33 Sup. Ct. 27, 57 L. Ed. 212, Ann. Cas. 1914B, 71; Plymouth Coal Co. v. Pennsylvania, 232 U. S. 531, 544, 34 Sup. Ct. 359, 58 L. Ed. 713; Jeffrey Mfg. Co. v. Blagg, 235 U. S. 571, 576, 35 Sup. Ct. 167, 59 L. Ed. 364. But plaintiff in error sets up a grievance as a member of a class to which the act is made to apply.

However, we are clear that the classification cannot be held to be arbitrary and unreasonable. The Supreme Court of Texas in sustaining it said (108 Tex. 110, 111, 185 S. W. 561):

'Employes of railroads, those of employers having less than five employes, domestic servants, farm laborers and gin laborers are excluded from the operation of the act, but this was doubtless for reasons that the Legislature deemed sufficient. The nature of these several employments, the existence of other laws governing liability for injuries to railroad employes, known experience as to the hazards and extent of accidental injuries to farm hands, gin hands and domestic servants, were all matters no doubt considered by the Legislature in exempting them from the operation of the act. Distinctions in these and other respects between them and employes engaged in other industrial pursuits may, we think, be readily suggested. We are not justified in saying that the classification was purely arbitrary.'

There is a strong presumption that a Legislature understands and correctly appreciates the needs of its own people, that its laws are directed to problems made manifest by experience, and that its discriminations are based upon adequate grounds. The equal protection clause does not require that state laws shall cover the entire field of proper legislation in a single enactment. If one entertained the view that the act might as well have been extended to other classes of employment, this would not amount to a constitutional objection. Rosenthal v. New York, 226 U. S. 260, 271, 33 Sup. Ct. 27, 57 L. Ed. 212, Ann. Cas. 1914B, 71; Patsone v. Pennsylvania, 232 U. S. 138, 144, 34 Sup. Ct. 281, 58 L. Ed. 539; Missouri, Kan. & Texas Ry. v. Cade, 233 U. S. 642, 649, 650, 34 Sup. Ct. 678, 58 L. Ed. 1135; International Harvester Co. v. Missouri, 234 U. S. 199, 215, 34 Sup. Ct. 859, 58 L. Ed. 1276, 52 L. R. A. (N. S.) 525; Keokee Coke Co. v. Taylor, 234 U. S. 224, 227, 34 Sup. Ct. 856, 58 L. Ed. 1288; Miller v. Wilson, 236 U. S. 373, 384, 35 Sup. Ct. 342, 59 L. Ed. 628, L. R. A. 1915F, 829.

The burden being upon him who attacks a law for unconstitutionality, the courts need not be ingenious in searching for grounds of distinction to sustain a classification that may be subjected to criticism. But in this case adequate grounds are easily discerned. As to the exclusion of railroad employes, the existence of the federal employers' Liability Act of April 22, 1908, c. 149, 35 Stat. 65 (Comp. St. §§ 8657-8665), as amended by act April 5, 1910, c. 143, 36 Stat. 291, applying exclusively as to employes of common carriers by rail injured while employed in interstate commerce, establishing liability for...

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