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Franzen v. E. I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co.

December 28, 1944

FRANZEN
v.
E. I. DU PONT DE NEMOURS & CO., INC.



Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the District of New Jersey; Phillip Forman, Judge.

Author: Jones

Before JONES and McLAUGHLIN, Circuit Judges and BARD, District Judge.

JONES, Circuit Judge.

The plaintiff brought suit in the District Court of the United States for the District of New Jersey as the alleged widow and sole dependent of George Albert Franzen to recover compensation under the Employers' Liability Laws of Louisiana*fn1 for the death of Franzen in the course of his employment by the defendant company in the latter State.

The defendant moved to dismiss both the complaint and the action on the grounds that (1) the matter in controversy did not exceed, exclusive of interest and costs, the sum of $3,000, (2) under the Employers' Liability Laws of Louisiana, the courts of that State alone have jurisdiction of actions thereunder, and (3) the complaint was not verified as required by the Louisiana Statutes. The trial court denied the motion in an opinion reported in, D.C., 36 F.Supp. 375. We think the cited opinion of the court below sufficiently justified its disposition of grounds (1) and (3) above. We shall not, therefore, refer to them again.

By answer, the defendant admitted Franzen's death by accident on the date alleged while he was employed at the defendant's plant in Louisiana but denied that the plaintiff was the widow or dependent of Franzen. As a separate defense in connection with this denial, the defendant pleaded that the plaintiff was not the lawful wife of Franzen at the time of his death "under a contract of marriage cognizable and recognized as valid under the laws of Louisiana". The answer also renewed the defendant's denial of the court's jurisdiction of the cause.

At trial, which was to the court below without a jury, there was but one matter which involved issues of fact, viz., whether the plaintiff had contracted a common law marriage with Franzen in Camden, New Jersey, on April 17, 1937. Admittedly, there had never been a ceremonial marriage. The trial court held that, under the evidence, a common law marriage between the plaintiff and Franzen in New Jersey on the date alleged had been established and that, consequently, the plaintiff became Franzen's widow and his sole dependent upon his death on August 6, 1939. The trial court further held that the plaintiff, as such widow and sole dependent, was entitled to compensation for her husband's death under the provisions of the Employers' Liability Laws of Louisiana. The court accordingly entered judgment for the payment of specified sums by the defendant to the plaintiff for the statutorily prescribed period. The defendant appeals.

Aside from the question of the court's jurisdiction to hear and determine the matter and the question of the alleged common law marriage in New Jersey, the appellant also complains of two matters of evidence which arose at trial and which we shall hereinafter consider.

Logical sequence requires that we first consider the question of the alleged common law marriage. Unless the plaintiff is the widow and, as such, the dependent of the deceased employee, her want of any right to compensation for Franzen's death would, of course, make an end of the case even though the court had jurisdiction to hear and determine the compensation claim.

Whether the plaintiff was Franzen's wife is to be determined according to the law of New Jersey. That is so, wholly apart from the fact that federal court jurisdiction of the controversy depends upon diversity of citizenship, which imposes upon a federal court the duty of following and applying local law. The plaintiff avers her marriage to Franzen, according to the common law, at Camden, New Jersey, on a specified date. The validity of a marriage is to be determined by the law of the place where it is contracted. Travers v. Reinhardt, 205 U.S. 423, 439, 442, 27 S. Ct. 563, 51 L. Ed. 865. See Beale, Conflict of Laws, Vol. 2, p. 669. And, if valid according to the law of the State where contracted, a marriage is to be regarded as valid in every other jurisdiction. Loughran v. Loughran, 292 U.S. 216, 223, 54 S. Ct. 684, 78 L. Ed. 1219. See Restatement Conflict of Laws, ยง 121 (1934 Ed.)

It is, therefore, of no legal significance to our present inquiry that common law marriages may not be contracted in Louisiana (see Art. 86 of the Civil Code of Louisiana). There is no contention that the plaintiff and Franzen contracted a common law marriage in that State. Their cohabitation in Louisiana during his employment there was but a continuation of the relationship into which they had previously entered in New Jersey, while both were domiciled there. The trial court so found and the evidence is quite sufficient to support the finding.

The pertinent question is whether the plaintiff and Franzen validly entered into a common law marriage in Camden, New Jersey, on April 17, 1937. The trial court concluded that they did. While the evidence relevant to the findings supporting this conclusion is inconsistent or contradictory in part, the trial court relied largely on the testimony of one witness (Gordon). Gordon was resident in the house in Camden in which Franzen and the plaintiff took up their cohabitation at the time specified pursuant to an affirmative undertaking of marriage between them as Franzen stated in substance to Gordon in the presence of the plaintiff. This intended reputation of marriage was repeatedly confirmed thereafter. Certainly, the trial court's findings of cohabitation and reputation and the parties' express agreement of marriage are not so clearly erroneous as to justify a reviewing court in setting them aside. See Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C.A. following section 723c. On the basis of the findings, it is our opinion that, under the law of New Jersey, Franzen and the plaintiff contracted a valid common law marriage in that State at the time alleged. See Jackson v. Jackson, 94 N.J.Eq. 233, 236, 113 A. 495; affirmed per curiam by the Court of Errors and Appeals, 118 A. 926.

The appellant makes point of the fact that in a suit by the plaintiff against the Equitable Life Assurance Society upon a policy on Franzen's life, the Camden District Court held that there had been no marriage and that the plaintiff was not Franzen's widow. But, directly contrary, a Commissioner of a New Jersey tribunal of no less dignity (Workmen's Compensation Bureau, New Jersey Department of Labor) on a claim by the plaintiff against the present defendant for compensation under New Jersey's compensation law, held that a common law marriage between the plaintiff and Franzen, contracted in New Jersey, had existed from April 17, 1937. It is true that the New Jersey Supreme Court subsequently reversed the Commissioner's award of compensation but did so on the ground that Franzen's contract of employment had been made in Louisiana and that the law of that State governed the right to compensation for his injury or death. See Franzen v. E. I. du Pont De Nemours & Co., 128 N.J.L. 549, 27 A.2d 615. The New Jersey Supreme Court did not pass upon the question of marriage. In that situation, the court below, in applying the law of New Jersey, was under the necessity of spelling out what it believed a court of competent jurisdiction in New Jersey would apply, as the law of the State, in like circumstances. See Meredith v. Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228, 237, 64 S. Ct. 7. We think the conclusion of the court below that the plaintiff was the widow and sole dependent of the deceased employee is in keeping with the controlling law.

Coming to the question of jurisdiction, little would need be added to what is so ably set out in the opinion of the learned court below (See 36 F.Supp. 375, 377-378) in support of its conclusion in such regard, were it not for the fundamental ...


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