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Lane v. Universal Stevedoring Co.

Decided: May 7, 1973.


For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub, Justices Jacobs, Proctor, Hall, Mountain and Sullivan, and Judge Conford. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Proctor, J.


The issue in this case is whether New Jersey may constitutionally provide workmen's compensation benefits to a workman usually employed on land who is injured while aboard a vessel on the navigable waters of the United States.

Petitioner Simmie Lane filed a claim against his employer, respondent Universal Stevedoring Company, in the Division of Workmen's Compensation for benefits under N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 et seq. The Division determined that it was without jurisdiction because Lane was injured while working as a longshoreman in the hold of a ship on navigable waters of the United States, and dismissed his claim on the basis that his exclusive remedy was under the federal Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq. On petitioner's appeal to the County Court, the Division's dismissal of the claim was reversed on the ground that there was "sufficient local interest" to support a state compensation remedy. Respondent then appealed to the Appellate Division; that court reversed the judgment of the County Court in an unreported opinion, and held that petitioner's exclusive remedy was under the federal act. We granted certification. 62 N.J. 189 (1972).

The facts are not in dispute as petitioner was the only witness to testify. He was a resident of this State, and was

employed by the respondent at Port Newark. His principal duty was driving and operating a forklift truck. He said that "when the guys discharge the cargo, I drive a hi-lo [forklift truck], and I runs it into the warehouse, from the warehouse to the dock." He testified that usually he drove the truck on land, "mostly" in a warehouse located in the dock area. However, sometimes his foreman would direct him to drive the truck in the holds of ships moored to the dock, but these occasions were "very seldom."

On October 26, 1967, the petitioner was working on land when his foreman ordered him to go into the hold of a ship in order to show an inexperienced employee how to unhook cargo. Petitioner testified that after entering the hold, he was injured in the following manner:

"When I showed the guy how to unhook the draft and the winchman pulled up on the winch, and the things they call the bows swung back and ripped my coveralls and hit me in the lower part of my groin."

Although petitioner stated that he belonged to the "ILA" (International Longshoremen's Association), he did not know what these letters stood for and he did not know what a "stevedore" was. According to petitioner, he worked as a "laborer," "machine operator," and "driver."

The relatively simple factual situation of this case falls within a confusing area of the law concerning the constitutional limits of state and federal jurisdiction. The Constitution of the United States extends the federal judicial power "to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction." Art. III, § 2, cl.1. In marking the constitutional boundary for the application of state law in cases involving employees whose work consists of duties both on land and on navigable waters, the starting point is the United States Supreme Court's 1917 decision in Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 37 S. Ct. 524, 61 L. Ed. 1086. There the Court held that the Workmen's Compensation Act of New York could not constitutionally be applied to provide benefits to

the widow of a longshoreman who was killed aboard a ship on navigable waters while engaged in unloading cargo. The Court stated that the decedent's employment was maritime in nature, and the place of the injury, on navigable waters, was also maritime. Such an application of state law, the Court said, would interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of the maritime law in its international and interstate relations. 244 U.S. at 216, 37 S. Ct. at 529, 61 L. Ed. at 1098. However, the Court later held that if a longshoreman injured while loading cargo happened to be standing on land or extensions thereto such as docks, state law could constitutionally apply. State Industrial Comm'n of N.Y. v. Nordenholt Corp., 259 U.S. 263, 42 S. Ct. 473, 66 L. Ed. 933 (1922).

By restricting the application of state workmen's compensation law to the landward side of the water's edge, Jensen led to the harsh result of denying compensation for amphibious workers injured while on navigable waters because at that time there was no federal compensation act. Congressional efforts to alleviate this situation by legislation empowering the States to grant compensation coverage to workers injured on navigable waters were twice struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional delegations of federal power to the states. Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149, 40 S. Ct. 438, 64 L. Ed. 834 (1920); State of Washington v. W. C. Dawson & Co., 264 U.S. 219, 44 S. Ct. 302, 68 L. Ed. 646 (1924). Finally, responding to the Supreme Court's suggestion in Dawson that congressional legislation conferring federal benefits to those workers whose injuries were beyond state jurisdiction would be constitutional, Congress in 1927 passed the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act. 33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq. This Act provided a federal compensation remedy for workers injured on navigable waters" . . . if recovery for the disability or death through workmen's compensation proceedings may not validly be provided by State law." 33 U.S.C.A. § 903(a). Thus, it seems clear that Congress

contemplated that the states would continue to apply their own laws to amphibious workers to the maximum permissible extent, but intended that the federal legislation should cover those specific situations where the Constitution prohibited the exercise of state jurisdiction. See Gilmore & Black, The Law of Admiralty, p. 346 (1957); ...

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