Otis and Julia Thompson were married in 1921, and lived together
as husband and wife until 1925, when Otis deserted her. They were
never divorced, but they never lived together again, and he never
contributed anything to her support or that of their two children,
nor did she ever seek to have him do so. Otis "married" another
woman in 1929. In 1940, Julia "married" another man, and thereafter
lived and held herself out as the latter's wife. She was divorced
from him in 1949. Shortly before Otis' death, he asked Julia to
"take him back," but she refused, having no intention of ever again
living with him and resuming the relationship of husband and
at the time of Otis' death in 1951, Julia was not
his "widow" within the meaning of the Longshoremen's and Harbor
Workers' Act, 33 U.S. C. § 902 (16), and was not entitled under the
Act to compensation for his death. Pp. 347 U. S.
(a) Since, at the time of the decedent's death, Julia was not
living apart from him "by reason of his desertion," she was not his
"widow" within the scope of the provision. P. 347 U. S.
(b) By her purported remarriage, Julia severed the bond which
was the basis of her right to claim a death benefit as the
decedent's statutory dependent. P. 347 U. S.
205 F.2d 527 affirmed.
Page 347 U. S. 335
On June 15, 1951, Otis Thompson died from injuries suffered
while loading a ship for his employer. Two women sought a death
benefit under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation
Act, each claiming to be his "widow." The Deputy Commissioner
denied both claims, that of one woman on the ground that she was
not the lawful wife of the decedent, and that of the other because,
at the time of Otis' death, she was living apart from him not "by
reason of his desertion," 33 U.S.C. § 902(16). On a review of the
latter dismissal, the District Court sustained the Deputy
Commissioner's order, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth
Circuit affirmed. 205 F.2d 527. In doing so, that court rejected
contrary decisions of the Courts of Appeals for the Second and
Ninth Circuits, Associated Operating Co. v. Lowe,
916, Moore Dry Dock Co. v. Pillsbury,
169 F.2d 988. We
granted certiorari to resolve this conflict. 346 U.S. 921.
The Deputy Commissioner made these findings. Otis and Julia
Thompson were married in 1921, and lived together as husband and
wife until November, 1925, when Otis deserted her. They never lived
together again, and he never contributed anything to the support of
Julia or their two children, nor did she ever endeavor to secure
such support. Meanwhile, Otis had taken up with one Sallie
Williams, and they went through a marriage ceremony in 1929. Julia,
in turn, found another mate, one Jimmy Fuller, whom she "married"
in 1940. Thereafter she was known as Julia Fuller. She was formally
divorced from Fuller in 1949. Shortly before Otis' death, he asked
Julia to "take him back," but she refused, having no intention of
ever again living with him and resuming the relationship of husband
Page 347 U. S. 336
The single, unentangled question before us is whether, on these
unchallenged facts, Julia was, at the time of Otis' death in 1951,
his statutory "widow," as that term is described by Congress in the
"The term 'widow' includes only the decedent's wife living with
or dependent for support upon him at the time of his death, or
living apart for justifiable cause or by reason of his desertion at
33 U.S.C. § 902(16). We agree with the court below that, since
she was not at the time of her husband's death living apart from
him "by reason of his desertion," she was not a "widow" within the
scope of this provision. *
have been the situation prior to her "marriage" to Jimmy Fuller in
1940, it is clear that, after that date, she lived as the wife of
Jimmy Fuller, held herself out as his wife, and had severed all
meaningful relationship with the decedent.
We do not reach this conclusion by assessing the marital conduct
of the parties. That is an inquiry which may be relevant to legal
issues arising under State domestic relations law. Our concern is
with the proper interpretation of the Federal Longshoremen's Act.
Congress might have provided in that Act that a woman is entitled
to compensation so long as she is still deemed to be the lawful
wife of the decedent under State law, as, for example, where a
foreign divorce obtained by her is without constitutional validity
in the forum State. But Congress did not do so. It defined the
requirements which every claimant for compensation must meet.
Considering the purpose of this federal legislation and the manner
in which Congress has expressed that purpose, the essential
requirement is a conjugal nexus between the claimant
Page 347 U. S. 337
and the decedent subsisting at the time of the latter's death,
which, for present purposes, means that she must continue to live
as the deserted wife of the latter. That nexus is wholly absent
here. Julia herself, by her purported remarriage, severed the bond
which was the basis of her right to claim a death benefit as Otis'
statutory dependent. The very practical considerations of this
Compensation Act should not be subordinated to the empty
abstraction that, once a wife has been deserted, she always remains
a deserted wife, no matter what -- the "no matter what" in this
case being the wife's conscious choice to terminate her prior
conjugal relationship by embarking upon another permanent
The judgment is
* It was not contended before us that, in the circumstances of
this case, the phrase "for justifiable cause" has a different reach
than the phrase "by reason of his desertion."
MR. JUSTICE BLACK, with whom MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS and MR. JUSTICE
MINTON concur, dissenting.
Petitioner's husband, a longshoreman, was killed in 1951 on a
job governed by the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation
Act. Petitioner was not then living with her husband, and had not
done so since he deserted her and their two children in 1925.
Petitioner went through a marriage ceremony with another man in
1940, living with him as his wife until 1949, when they were
divorced. Of course, this marriage was invalid, and petitioner
remained the wife of her husband until he was killed. The Court now
holds as a matter of law that petitioner's second "marriage"
amounts to a forfeiture of her right to recover compensation under
the Act as a widow. In so holding, the Court follows decisions of
the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. [Footnote 1
] The Courts of Appeals for the Second
and Ninth Circuits have held to
Page 347 U. S. 338
the contrary. [Footnote 2
agree with the Second and Ninth Circuits.
Not a word in the Compensation Act suggests that the deserted
widow of a deceased longshoreman automatically forfeits all right
to statutory compensation because she has lived with a man other
than her husband. What the Act actually does is to entitle a widow
to compensation if, at the time of her husband's death, she is
either: (1) living with him; (2) dependent upon him for support;
(3) living apart from him for justifiable cause; (4) living apart
from him by reason of his desertion. Obviously these issues cannot
be decided without hearing evidence and determining facts. The Act
vests deputy commissioners, not courts, with power "to hear and
determine all questions in respect of such claim." 33 U.S.C. §
919(a). And their findings of fact when supported by substantial
evidence are conclusive on courts. [Footnote 3
Here there were only two factual issues presented to the Deputy
Commissioner. Was the wife living apart from her husband for
"justifiable cause"? Was she living apart from him because of his
"desertion"? I think there was evidence before the Deputy
Commissioner on which he could have fairly decided these questions
of fact either way. He made findings and entered an order against
the petitioner, but it is admitted that he did so because he felt
bound by prior holdings of the Fifth Circuit that an attempted
marriage by a wife barred her recovery of compensation as a matter
of law. The Court now affirms the judgment although the Deputy
Commissioner has never passed on the factual issues of whether
Page 347 U. S. 339
the wife's living apart from her husband was either
"justifiable" or by reason of his "desertion." That the Court
treats its holding as one of statutory construction cannot obscure
the actual effect of what it is doing. The Court is taking from the
deputy commissioners their congressionally granted power to
determine from all the facts and circumstances whether a widow is
entitled to compensation.
I would reverse with directions to remand the cause to the
Deputy Commissioner to determine, free from judicial compulsion,
whether, as a fact, petitioner's living apart was for "justifiable
cause" or on account of her husband's "desertion." If either of
these issues should be decided in favor of the petitioner, she is
entitled to compensation.
Ryan Stevedoring Co. v. Henderson,
138 F.2d 348;
American Mutual Liability Ins. Co. v. Henderson,
Associated Operating Co. v. Lowe,
138 F.2d 916,
52 F. Supp. 550; Moore Dry Dock Co. v.
169 F.2d 988.
Voehl v. Indemnity Ins. Co., 288 U.
, 288 U. S. 166
Parker v. Motor Boat Sales, Inc., 314 U.
, 314 U. S. 246
O'Leary v. Brown-Pacific-Maxon, Inc., 340 U.
, 340 U. S.