Bradford Electric Light Co., Inc. v. Clapper
286 U.S. 145 (1932)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Bradford Electric Light Co., Inc. v. Clapper, 286 U.S. 145 (1932)

Bradford Electric Light Co., Inc. v. Clapper

No. 423

Argued February 15, 16, 1932

Decided May 16, 1932

286 U.S. 145

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. A state statute is a "public act" within the meaning of the full faith and credit clause of the Federal Constitution. P. 286 U. S. 154.

2. A federal court is bound equally with courts of the state in which it sits to observe the command of the full faith and credit clause. P. 286 U. S. 155.

3. As regards the question whether a state is bound to recognize in its courts an Act of another state which is obnoxious to its public policy, different considerations may apply where the right claimed

Page 286 U. S. 146

under the Act is the cause of action sued on, and where it is set up merely as a defense to an asserted liability. P. 286 U. S. 160.

4. Through a contract made in Vermont, an employer domiciled and having its principal place of business there, and its employee, also a resident of that state, tacitly accepted the Vermont Workmen's Compensation Act, which provides that injury or death of an employee suffered in Vermont or elsewhere in the course of his employment, shall be compensated for only as by the Act provided, without recourse to actions based on tort, which it expressly excludes. The employee died of an injury he received while casually in New Hampshire about the employment, and left no New Hampshire dependents.

Held:

(1) That the Vermont statutory agreement is a defense to the employer against an action for death by wrongful act, brought in New Hampshire, in the federal court, by the personal representative of the deceased employee. P. 286 U. S. 153.

(2) Refusal to recognize such defense is a failure to give full faith and credit to the Vermont statute, in violation of Art. IV, 1, of the Federal Constitution. P. 286 U. S. 154.

(3) To recognize as a defense in another state the statutory relationship and obligations to which the parties to the employment subjected themselves under the Vermont Act is not to give that Act an extraterritorial application. P. 286 U. S. 155.

(4) The fact that the New Hampshire Compensation Act permits employees to elect, after the injury, whether to sue for negligence or to avail themselves of its compensation provisions does not establish that it would be obnoxious to New Hampshire public policy to give effect, ut supra, to the Vermont statute in cases involving only the rights of residents of that state. P. 286 U. S. 161.

5. Acceptance of the New Hampshire Workmen's Compensation Act by a Vermont employer in order to save certain common law defenses if sued by employees resident in the former state held not an abandonment of the employer's defense under the Vermont Act in respect of an employee who resided in Vermont and was injured while casually working in New Hampshire. P. 286 U. S. 162.

51 F.2d 992, 999, reversed.

Certiorari to review the affirmance of a recovery in an action for death by wrongful act. See284 U. S. 221.

Page 286 U. S. 150

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

Page 286 U. S. 151

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, set up as a special defense that the action was barred 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.

Page 286 U. S. 152

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,"

§ 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, § 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," § 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, § 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.

Page 286 U. S. 153

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. [Footnote 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 accident

Page 286 U. S. 154

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. [Footnote 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 Art. IV, § 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

Page 286 U. S. 155

is a "public act" within the meaning of that clause is settled. Modern Woodmen of America v. Mixer,267 U. S. 544, 267 U. S. 550-551; Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Dunken,266 U. S. 389, 266 U. S. 393. See Tennessee Coal, Iron & R. Co. v. George,233 U. S. 354, 233 U. S. 360; Chicago & Alton R. Co. v. Wiggins Ferry Co.,119 U. S. 615, 119 U. S. 622. [Footnote 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. [Footnote 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

Page 286 U. S. 156

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 Bldg. & Loan Assn. v. Brahan,193 U. S. 635, 193 U. S. 647; Olmsted v. Olmsted,216 U. S. 386, 216 U. S. 395. [Footnote 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 Comm'n,255 U. S. 445, dismissing writ of error, 184 Cal. 26, 192 P. 1021, and likewise has power to exclude from its own courts proceedings for any other form of relief for such injuries. [Footnote 6]

Page 286 U. S. 157

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 when the same facts are presented for adjudication in New Hampshire.

The answer is that such recognition in New Hampshire of the rights created by the Vermont Act cannot, in any proper sense, be termed an extraterritorial application of that Act. [Footnote 7] Workmen's compensation Acts are

Page 286 U. S. 158

treated, almost universally, as creating a statutory relation between the parties -- not, like employer's liability acts, as substituting a statutory tort for a common law tort. See Cudahy Packing Co. v. Parramore,263 U. S. 418, 263 U. S. 423; Mulhall v. Nashua Mfg. Co., 80 N.H.194, 197, 115 A. 449; Cameron v Ellis Construction Co., 252 N.Y. 394, 396, 169 N.E. 622; Chandler v. Industrial Commission, 55 Utah 213, 217, 184 P. 1020; Anderson v. Miller Scrap Iron Co., 169 Wis. 106, 113, 117, 118, 170 N.W. 275, 171 N.W. 935. The relation between Leon Clapper and the company was created by the law of Vermont, and as long as that relation persisted, its incidents were properly subject to regulation there, for both Clapper and the company were at all times residents of Vermont; the company's principal place of business was located there; the contract of employment was made there, and the employee's duties required him to go into New Hampshire only for temporary and specific purposes, in response to orders given him at the Vermont office. The mere recognition by the courts of one state that parties by their conduct have subjected themselves to certain obligations arising under the law of another state is not to be deemed an extraterritorial application of the law of the state creating the obligation. [Footnote 8] Compare

Page 286 U. S. 159

Canada Southern Ry. Co. v. Gebhard,109 U. S. 527, 109 U. S. 536-537.

By requiring that, under the circumstances here presented, full faith and credit be given to the public act of Vermont, the Federal Constitution prevents the employee or his representative from asserting in New Hampshire rights which would be denied him in the state of his residence and employment. A Vermont court could have enjoined Leon Clapper from suing the company in New Hampshire, to recover damages for an injury suffered there, just as it would have denied him the right to recover such damages in Vermont. Compare Cole v. Cunningham,133 U. S. 107; Reynolds v. Adden,136 U. S. 348, 136 U. S. 353. The rights created by the Vermont Act are entitled to like protection when set up in New Hampshire by way of defense to the action brought there. If this were not so, and the employee or his representative were free to disregard the law of Vermont and his contract, the effectiveness of the Vermont Act would be gravely impaired. For the purpose of that Act, as of the workmen's compensation laws of most other states, is to provide, in respect to persons residing and businesses located in the state, not only for employees a remedy which is both expeditious and independent of proof of fault, but also for employers a liability which is limited and determinate. Compare New York Central R. Co. v. White,243 U. S. 188; Hawkins v. Bleakly,243 U. S. 210; Mountain Timber Co. v. Washington,243 U. S. 219.

Fourth. It is urged that the provision of the Vermont statute which forbids resort to common law remedies for injuries incurred in the course of employment is contrary to the public policy of New Hampshire; that the full faith and credit clause does not require New Hampshire to enforce an Act of another state which is obnoxious to its public policy, and that a federal courts sitting in that state may therefore decline to do so. Compare 245 U. S. S. 160

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