Plymouth Coal Co. v. Pennsylvania
232 U.S. 531 (1914)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Plymouth Coal Co. v. Pennsylvania, 232 U.S. 531 (1914)

Plymouth Coal Company v. Pennsylvania

No. 102

Argued January 15, 1914

Decided February 24, 1914

232 U.S. 531

Syllabus

The business of mining coal is so attended with danger as to render it the proper subject of police regulation by the state.

It is not an unreasonable exercise of the police power of the state to require owners of adjoining coal properties to cause boundary pillars

Page 232 U. S. 532

to be left of sufficient width to safeguard the employees of either mine in case the other should be abandoned and allowed to fill with water.

One attacking the constitutionality of a state statute must show that he is within the class whose constitutional rights are injuriously affected by the statute.

In determining whether the constitutional rights of a party have been affected by a state statute, the courts will presume, until the contrary is shown, that any administrative body to which power is delegated will act with reasonable regard to property rights.

Except in such cases as arise under the contract clause of the Constitution, it is for the court of last resort of the state to construe the statutes of that state, and in exercising jurisdiction under 237, Judicial Code, it is proper for this Court to await the construction of the state court, rather than to assume in advance that such court will so construe the statute as to render it obnoxious to the federal Constitution.

If a statute be reasonably susceptible of two interpretations, one of which would render it unconstitutional and the other valid, the courts should adopt the latter in view of the presumption that the lawmaking body intends to act within, and not in excess of, its constitutional authority.

In the absence of clear language to the contrary, a provision for decision by a board in a public matter will be construed to the effect that a majority of such board shall act and decide. Omaha v. Omaha Water Co.,218 U. S. 180.

In matters of police regulation where decisions on questions of public safety are delegated to an administrative board, the right of appeal on other than constitutional grounds may be withheld by the legislature in its discretion without denying due process of law.

The statute of Pennsylvania requiring owners of adjoining coal properties to cause barrier pillars to be left of suitable width to safeguard employees is not unconstitutional either as depriving the owners of their property without due process of law or as denying them equal protection of the law, or because of the procedure and method prescribed for determining the width of such barrier or because it delegates the matter to an administrative board or does not provide for any appeal thereupon.

232 Pa.St. 141 affirmed.

This case involves the constitutionality of a § of the anthracite mine laws of the State of Pennsylvania,

Page 232 U. S. 533

being § 10 of Art. III of the Act of June 2, 1891 (Pub.Laws, p. 176, 183), which reads as follows:

"It shall be obligatory on the owners of adjoining coal properties to leave, or cause to be left, a pillar of coal in each seam or vein of coal worked by them, along the line of adjoining property, of such width that, taken in connection with the pillar to be left by the adjoining property owner, will be a sufficient barrier for the safety of the employees of either mine in case the other should be abandoned and allowed to fill with water, such width of pillar to be determined by the engineers of the adjoining property owners together with the inspector of the district in which the mine is situated, and the surveys of the face of the workings along such pillar shall be made in duplicate, and must practically agree. A copy of such duplicate surveys, certified to, must be filed with the owners of the adjoining properties and with the inspector of the district in which the mine or property is situated."

Art. XVIII, under the head of "Definition of Terms," contains, inter alia, the following:

"The term 'owners' and 'operators' means any person or body corporate who is the immediate proprietor or lessee or occupier of any coal mine or colliery or any part thereof. The term 'owner' does not include a person or body corporate who merely receives a royalty, rent, or fine from a coal mine or colliery or part thereof, or is merely the proprietor of the mine, subject to any lease, grant, or license for the working or operating thereof, or is merely the owner of the soil, and not interested in the minerals of the mine or any part thereof. But any 'contractor' for the working of a mine or colliery, or any part or district thereof, shall be subject to this act as an operator or owner, in like manner as if he were the owner."

The record shows that the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company and the Plymouth Coal Company are, respectively, the lessees or owners of adjoining coal properties

Page 232 U. S. 534

situate at Plymouth, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania; that, on August 31, 1909, Mr. Davis, the Inspector of Mines of the district in which the properties are located, wrote a letter to the president of the Plymouth Coal Company which reads as follows:

"Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Aug. 31, '09"

"John C. Haddock, Pres. Plymouth Coal Co."

"Dear Sir: Kindly have your engineer report at my office Thursday morning Sept. 2nd at 10 o'clock, at which time we can meet the engineer of the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company to decide as to thickness of barrier pillar to be left unmined between the properties of the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company and the Plymouth Coal Company, situated at Plymouth, Luz. Co., Pa. as per Article III, § 10 anthracite mine laws of this commonwealth, which reads as follows [quoting the section verbatim]."

"[Signed] D. T. DAVIS"

"Inspector of Mines."

To this, the following reply was made:

"Wilkes-Barre, Pa."

"Sept. 1, 1909"

"Mr. D. T. Davis, Inspector, Ninth Anthracite Inspection District, Wilkes-Barre, Pa."

"Dear Sir: I am in receipt of yours of the 31st ult."

"Allow me to say in reply that, while it would give us great pleasure to meet you and the representatives of the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company at the suggested conference, to be held tomorrow, we cannot enter such a conference to even consider, much less conclude, an agreement that may affect our rights and our duty to our lessors at the Dodson Colliery."

"I assume it is needless to assure you that we stand

Page 232 U. S. 535

ready at all times to comply with any reasonable request that may emanate from you or your office, but, if I am advised correctly, this request or demand originated with the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company."

"This was their right to make as it is ours to decline."

"Yours very truly,"

"[Signed] JOHN C. HADDOCK"

"President The Plymouth Coal Co."

Thereupon, pursuant to Article XV of the above-mentioned statute, the mine inspector, acting in behalf of the commonwealth, filed his bill of complaint against the Plymouth Coal Company in the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, setting forth the above facts and averring that defendant refused to permit its engineer to meet with the mine inspector and the engineer of the adjoining property owner to determine the width of the barrier pillar, or to even consider the matter, and refused to leave or cause to be left a pillar that, taken in connection with the pillar to be left by the adjoining property owner, would be a sufficient barrier for the safety of the employees of either mine in case the other should be abandoned and allowed to fill with water; that defendant employed in its mine at least three hundred persons, and the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company employed in its mine at least seven hundred persons, and the refusal of the defendant endangered the lives and safety of the employees of both mines. There was a prayer for a preliminary and perpetual injunction to restrain defendant from working its mine without leaving a barrier pillar of coal of the thickness or width of at least 30 feet in each seam or vein worked by it along the line of the adjoining property. Defendant answered, admitting the truth of the averments of the bill without qualification, except that it denied that any barrier was necessary for the safety of the employees of either mine in case

Page 232 U. S. 536

the other mine should be abandoned. At the same time, it averred that the Act of June 2, 1891, upon which the bill was based, "is confiscatory, unconstitutional, and void." There was a preliminary injunction, restraining defendant from working its mine without leaving a barrier pillar at least 70 feet wide. This was continued until the final hearing, which resulted in a decree continuing the injunction, but without prejudice to defendant's

"to apply to the court for a dissolution or modification thereof, upon showing to the satisfaction of the court that the proper mine inspector and the engineers of the defendant company and the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company have, upon due investigation and consultation, determined that a barrier pillar of less width than that stated in the injunction (that is, less 70 feet on defendant's property) is sufficient for the protection of the men employed in the mines of either company in case the mine of the other should be abandoned and allowed to fill with water, and have made duplicate surveys and filed copies of the same as required by law, or, upon such investigation and consultation shall have decided that no such barrier pillar is necessary to the safety of the employees of either company in the event aforesaid."

Upon appeal, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the decree (232 Pa. 141), and the case comes here by virtue of § 237, Judicial Code, for adjudication under the "due process" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution.

Page 232 U. S. 539

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