A workman employed generally as a carpenter by a builder of
seagoing vessels was injured through the employer's negligence
while engaged in construction work on a ship nearly completed
Page 257 U. S. 470
launched and lying in navigable waters of the United States in
Oregon. Both parties had accepted the Oregon Workmen's Compensation
Law, which, in the absence of its rejection by either employer or
employee, requires the employer to make payments, including
deductions from the employee's wages, to a compensation fund,
specifies the sums which the employee may receive therefrom in case
of injury, and declares they shall be in lieu of all claims against
his employer on account of the injury.
(1) The general doctrine is that, in contract matters, admiralty
jurisdiction depends upon the nature of the transaction, and, in
tort matters, upon the locality. P. 257 U. S.
(2) The general admiralty jurisdiction extends to a proceeding
to recover damages resulting from a tort committed on a vessel in
process of construction when lying on navigable waters within a
state. P. 257 U. S.
(3) But, in this case, since the contract for the construction
of the vessel was nonmaritime, and since neither the employment of
the workman nor his activities at the time of injury had any direct
relation to commerce or navigation, the application of the Oregon
Compensation Law, with reference to which employer and employee had
contracted, could not materially affect any of the rules of the sea
whose uniformity is essential, and was therefore permissible. P.
257 U. S. 477
Union Fish Co. v. Erickson, 248 U.
; Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen,
244 U. S. 205
other cases distinguished.
(4) In view of its exclusive features, the Oregon Act abrogated
the right of the employee to recover damages in an admiralty court,
which otherwise would exist. P. 257 U. S. 478
This was a proceeding in admiralty to recover damages for
personal injuries resulting to an employee. The questions are
determined on a certificate from the court below stating the
Page 257 U. S. 473
MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Asking for instruction, the court below has sent up the
following certificate and questions. Judicial Code § 239.
"This cause came to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth
Circuit upon an appeal from the United States district court of
Oregon from a judgment in favor of the appellee as libelant in that
court, and against the appellant as libelee in that court, for the
sum of $10,000. The cause was a libel in admiralty for damages for
"Libelant, Herman F. Rohde, received injury while at work on a
partially completed vessel lying at a dock in the Willamette River
forming a part of the shipbuilding plant of respondent, Grant
Smith-Porter Ship Company. The character of the work being done by
libelant and the
Page 257 U. S. 474
operations of respondent of which the work formed a part are as
follows: respondent, Grant Smith-Porter Ship Company, at and prior
to the time of libelant's injury, was engaged in constructing steam
vessels for the United States government under contract with United
States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation. One of these
steam vessels was the steamer 'Ahala.' Prior to the time of
libelant's injury, this steamer had been launched in the Willamette
River at Portland, Oregon, which river is a part of the navigable
waters of the United States. At the time of libelant's injury,
April 10, 1919, the vessel had been substantially completed, but
was not ready for delivery, and all of the work in process at the
time of libelant's injury was work pertaining to the construction
of the vessel by respondent, Grant Smith-Porter Ship Company.
Libelant's work was that of a carpenter or joiner, and, at the time
of the injury, he was at work constructing a bulkhead enclosing
certain tanks in the vessel."
"Libelant began this proceeding in personam
respondent in the District Court of the United States for the
District of Oregon sitting in admiralty. Negligence of the
employer, respondent Grant Smith-Porter Ship Company, in the
construction and maintenance of a scaffold is alleged as the ground
for recovering of damages."
"At and prior to the time of libelant's injury, there was in
effect the so-called 'Workmen's Compensation Law' of the Oregon
(Chapter 112, Laws of Oregon, 1913, as amended, Chapter 271, Laws
of 1915, and Chapter 288, Laws of 1917). The law applied to
hazardous occupations (including shipbuilding) within the State of
Oregon. An option is given both to employers and workmen to accept
the compensation law or to reject it -- that is, both employers and
workmen are required to notify the proper state authority if it is
desired not to come under the act. Without such notice, the law is
applicable, and payments are required to be made by the employer,
Page 257 U. S. 475
payments include deductions from the wages of workmen. Workmen
who thus come under the act are entitled to receive certain
specified payments in the event of injury, and the act provides
"And the right to receive such sum or sums shall be in lieu of
all claims against his employer on account of such injury or death,
except as hereinafter specifically provided."
"At and prior to the time of libelant's injury, respondent was
engaged in shipbuilding operations on the Willamette River at
Portland within the State of Oregon, and libelant was in its employ
as a carpenter or joiner in such shipbuilding operations. Prior to
the time of the injury, neither respondent, the employer, nor
libelant, the workman, had notified the appropriate state authority
of any rejection of the provisions of the Workmen's Compensation
Act, and up to the time of the injury, respondent, the employer,
had taken all the steps required by the compensation act to bring
the work under its provisions, and there had been deducted and paid
over to the commission administering the compensation fund payments
from wages earned and paid libelant, the workman, up to the time of
the injury. Payroll deductions from the wages of libelant and other
workmen were made without regard to whether or not the work done by
such workman was on vessels under construction on the ways or
vessels under construction after launching."
"Questions of law concerning which the Circuit Court of Appeals
of the Ninth Circuit desires the instruction of the Supreme Court
are: (1) is there jurisdiction in admiralty because the alleged
tort occurred on navigable waters? (2) is libelant entitled because
of his injury to proceed in admiralty against respondent for the
The contract for constructing "The Ahala" was nonmaritime, and,
although the uncompleted structure upon which the accident occurred
was lying in navigable waters,
Page 257 U. S. 476
neither Rohde's general employment nor his activities at the
time had any direct relation to navigation or commerce. Thames
Towboat Co. v. Schooner Francis McDonald, 254 U.
. The injury was suffered within a state whose
positive enactment prescribed an exclusive remedy therefor. And as
both parties had accepted and proceeded under the statute by making
payments to the Industrial Accident Fund, it cannot properly be
said that they consciously contracted with each other in
contemplation of the general system of maritime law. Union Fish
Co. v. Erickson, 248 U. S. 308
Under such circumstances, regulation of the rights, obligations,
and consequent liabilities of the parties, as between themselves,
by a local rule would not necessarily work material prejudice to
any characteristic feature of the general maritime law or interfere
with the proper harmony or uniformity of that law in its
international or interstate relations. Southern Pacific Co. v.
Jensen, 244 U. S. 205
Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, ante, 257 U. S. 233
The general doctrine that, in contract matters, admiralty
jurisdiction depends upon the nature of the transaction, and, in
tort matters, upon the locality has been so frequently asserted by
this Court that it must now be treated as settled. Waring v.
5 How. 441, 46 U. S. 459
Philadelphia, Wilmington &
Baltimore R. Co. v. Philadelphia Towboar Co.,
How. 209, 64 U. S. 215
1 Black 574, 66 U. S. 579
Wall. 20, 70 U. S. 33
Leathers v. Blessing, 105 U. S. 626
105 U. S. 630
Martin v. West, 222 U. S. 191
222 U. S. 197
See Atlantic Transportation Co. v. Imbrovek, 234 U. S.
, 234 U. S. 59
and Hughes on Admiralty, 2d ed., p. 195.
The Workmen's Compensation Law of Oregon declares that, when a
workman subject to its terms is accidentally injured in the course
of his employment, he
"shall be entitled to receive from the Industrial Accident
Page 257 U. S. 477
hereby created the sum or sums hereinafter specified and the
right to receive such sum or sums shall be in lieu of all claims
against his employer on account of such injury or death. . . ."
In Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia,
we recently pointed out
that, as to certain local matters regulation of which would work no
material prejudice to the general maritime law, the rules of the
latter might be modified or supplemented by state statutes. The
present case is controlled by that principle. The statute of the
state applies, and defines the rights and liabilities of the
parties. The employee may assert his claim against the Industrial
Accident Fund, to which both he and the employer have contributed
as provided by the statute, but he cannot recover damages in an
This conclusion accords with Southern Pacific Co. v.
Jensen, 244 U. S. 205
Chelentis v. Luckenback Steamship Co., 247 U.
; Union Fish Co. v. Erickson,
248 U. S. 308
Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.
. In each of them, the employment or contract was
maritime in nature and the rights and liabilities of the parties
were prescribed by general rules of maritime law essential to its
proper harmony and uniformity. Here, the parties contracted with
reference to the state statute; their rights and liabilities had no
direct relation to navigation, and the application of the local law
cannot materially affect any rules of the sea whose uniformity is
As pointed out in The Ira M. Hedges, 218 U.
, 218 U. S. 270
"There sometimes is difficulty in distinguishing between matters
going to the jurisdiction and those determining merits." The
certified questions are not wholly free from uncertainty of that
nature, and we therefore state our view of their real
Construing the first question as meaning to inquire whether the
general admiralty jurisdiction extends to a
Page 257 U. S. 478
proceeding to recover damages resulting from a tort committed on
a vessel in process of construction when lying on navigable waters
within a state, we answer, yes.
Assuming that the second question presents the inquiry whether,
in the circumstances stated, the exclusive features of the Oregon
Workmen's Compensation Act would apply and abrogate the right to
recover damages in an admiralty court which otherwise would exist,
we also answer, yes.
MR. JUSTICE CLARKE concurs in the result.
THE CHIEF JUSTICE took no part in the decision of this