U.S. Supreme Court Alaska Steamship Co. v. McHugh, 268 U.S. 23 (1925)
Alaska Steamship Co. v. McHugh
Submitted March 10, 1925
Decided April 13, 1925
268 U.S. 23
ON CERTIFICATE; FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
The First Employers' Liability Act (June 11, 1906, c. 3073, 34 Stat. 232) did not undertake to regulate the liability of shipowners for personal injuries suffered by their employees due to negligence. P. 268 U. S. 27 .
The circuit court of appeals certified two questions, the first of which is set out and answered in the opinion.
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.
The court below has certified two questions of law concerning which it desires instruction. Judicial Code, § 239. The first question follows. Our answer to it renders a reply to the second one unnecessary.
"Is the owner of a ship, a common carrier engaged in coastwise commerce trade in the Territory of Alaska, liable to one of its employees, a stevedore, for damages which have resulted by reason of a defect or insufficiency due to the owner's negligence in an appliance furnished to the employee as provided under sections 1 and 2 of the Act of June 11, 1906, c. 3073, 34 Stat. 232, commonly known as the First Employers' Liability Act?"
The designated statute is entitled
"An Act relating to liability of common carriers in the District of Columbia and territories and common carriers engaged in commerce between the states and between the states and foreign nations, to their employees,"
"Sec. 1. That every common carrier engaged in trade or commerce in the District of Columbia, or in any territory of the United States, or between the several states, or between any territory and another, or between any territory or territories and any state or states, or the District of Columbia, or with foreign nations, or between the District of Columbia and any state or states or foreign nations, shall be liable to any of its employees, or, in the case of his death, to his personal representative for the benefit of his widow and children, if any, if none, then for his parents, if none, then for his next of kin dependent upon him, for all damages which may result from the negligence of any of its officers, agents, or employees, or by reason of any defect or insufficiency due to its negligence
in its cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track, roadbed, ways, or works."
"Sec. 2. That in all actions hereafter brought against any common carriers to recover damages for personal injuries to an employee, or where such injuries have resulted in his death, the fact that the employee may have been guilty of contributory negligence shall not bar a recovery where his contributory negligence was slight and that of the employer was gross in comparison, but the damages shall be diminished by the jury in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to such employee. All questions of negligence and contributory negligence shall be for the jury."
"Sec. 3. No contract of employment, insurance, etc., shall constitute a defense to an action brought to recover damages for injuries or death."
"Sec. 4. That no action shall be maintained under this Act unless commenced within one year from the time the cause of action accrued."
"Sec. 5. That nothing in this act shall be held to limit the duty of common carriers by railroads or impair the rights of their employees under the Safety-Appliance Act of March second, eighteen hundred and ninety-three, as amended April first, eighteen hundred and ninety-six, and March second, nineteen hundred and three."
The Employers' Liability Cases, 207 U. S. 463 , held that,
"conceding the power of Congress to regulate the relations of employer and employee engaged in interstate commerce, the [above-quoted] Act was unconstitutional in this: that, in its provisions regulating interstate commerce, Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in undertaking to make employers responsible not only to employees when engaged in interstate commerce, but to any of its employees, whether engaged in interstate commerce or in commerce wholly within a state."
The case last cited declared the Act valid and controlling insofar as it relates to the District of Columbia and the territories, although invalid as to accidents within a state. It was there said (p. 215 U. S. 97 ):
"When we consider the purpose of Congress to regulate the liability of employer to employee, and its evident intention to change certain rules of the common law which theretofore prevailed as to the responsibility for negligence in the conduct of the business of transportation, we think that it is apparent that had Congress not undertaken to deal with this relation in the states where it had been regulated by local law, it would have dealt with the subject and enacted the curative provisions of the law applicable to the District of Columbia and the territories over which its plenary power gave it the undoubted right to pass a controlling law, and to make uniform regulations governing the subject."
This Court has never held the Act applicable to marine torts. To give it such construction would give rise to a grave constitutional question as to its validity, and cause much confusion and uncertainty concerning the reciprocal rights and obligations of ships and those who work upon them. Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U. S. 149 ; Panama R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U. S. 375 , 264 U. S. 386 , 264 U. S. 390 . The language employed -- "negligence in its cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track, roadbed, ways or works;" "actions . . . to recover damages for personal injuries;" "all questions of negligence and contributory negligence shall be for the jury" -- and the
"evident intention to change certain rules of the common law which theretofore prevailed as to the responsibility for negligence in the conduct of the business of transportation,"
oppose the suggestion that the purpose was to regulate purely maritime matters, from time immemorial subject to the law of the sea, which recognizes and enforces rights and remedies radically different from those of the common law.
In the absence of a clear and distinct enunciation of such purpose, we cannot conclude that Congress intended to invade the field of admiralty jurisdiction, and materially after long recognized rights and established modes of procedure.
The first question must be answered in the negative.