On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division.
For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Oliphant, Wachenfeld and Burling. For affirmance -- Justices Heher, Jacobs and Brennan. The opinion of the court was delivered by Oliphant, J.
This is an appeal from a judgment of $5,000 of the Superior Court, Law Division, in favor of the plaintiff-respondent, entered on a jury verdict. We certified the case on our own motion. R.R. 1:10-1(a).
The plaintiff sought damages from the defendant for its use of a simplified method which he designed for the installation of bunk beds on ships being constructed under Federal Government contracts by the defendant. The action
is on an implied contract in the form of assumpsit on the theory of unjust enrichment. 1 Chitty Pleading, p. *99; 1 Tidd's Practice, p. *2; Clark v. Van Cleef, 75 N.J. Eq. 152, 156 (Ch. 1908); cf. Rabinowitz v. Massachusetts Bonding & Insurance Co., 119 N.J.L. 552, 556 (E. & A. 1938); Matarese v. Moore-McCormack Lines, 158 F.2d 631, 170 A.L.R. 440 (2 Cir. 1946). Plaintiff further alleged that he disclosed the invention to authorized agents of defendant in confidence.
Plaintiff was employed by the defendant as a tinsmith. The defendant, the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, was engaged on government contracts of converting three 10,000-ton passenger liners into troop ships. He was employed in a crew whose work was to install the sleeping bunks set up in tiers of three or four. These bunks consist of rectangular iron pipe frames inside of which was laced a length of canvas which supported a mattress and other bunk clothing. In their use position the bunks were at right angles to the bulkhead and parallel with the deck. When not in use the bunks were trussed up so as to provide more gangway for passage through the compartment. They were fastened on one side by a hinge-like arrangement and on the outside the bunks were supported by a metal strap which was attached to the underside of the deck above and on which were eight clips, of which four on each side of the bunk were required to sustain the bunk in the two required positions.
The installation of the bunks by this arrangement was a complicated proceeding except where the installation was along a straight bulkhead. There were innumerable conduits, piping and electric cables which crossed the path where the clips would usually and normally be located, and in such situations the installation of the bunk practically became a handwork job to fit a particular bunk in place. These situations engendered in the mind of the plaintiff the idea that there should be a simpler way to make these installations and he thought considerably about it. One night at home he conceived a very simple idea of re-arranging the hooks
which he sketched out on a small piece of paper. The idea was an extraordinarily simple one and consisted of installing a small hook halfway up a steel strap that held the bunk in a sleeping position and thereby eliminated the necessity for some of the clips and in turn the complication of interference by facilities that ran along the underside of the upper decks.
On each ship there were 566 bunks which meant that some 1,132 clips were required under his improved method as against 4,528 under the old method. There is no question but that the suggestion had a definite financial value to the defendant.
The plaintiff and other of the appellant's employees were paid under an incentive system. Estimators in the engineering department established a time norm or standard for doing a particular job. The men were paid an hourly rate on this basis. If the estimate of the work was three hours and it took eight to do it then the employee received eight hours pay for doing the job, but on the other hand if the estimate was for three hours and the employee accomplished the work in one hour he was paid for three hours. This was referred to as an incentive ticket. Once the company adopted the plaintiff's idea the engineering department made new estimates with the result the incentive tickets of the plaintiff and his fellow employees in the same gang were reduced about two-thirds in amount; at which point the plaintiff complained bitterly to his immediate superiors and asked what he was going to get out of all of this.
It is obvious that these changes in the estimates of the time required to do the work reflected a large saving in labor costs in the installation of the bunks and were the end product and result of the idea and design of the plaintiff. So from this standpoint the refusal of the defendant to share a part of this gain with the plaintiff seemingly is inequitable. But there are countervailing equities arising from the employer-employee relationship which support the ...