NORTHERN PAC. RY. CO. v. MEESE(1916)
[239 U.S. 614, 615] Mr. Charles W. Bunn for petitioner.
Messrs. Govnor Teats, Leo Teats, and Ralph Teats for respondents.
Mr. Justice McReynolds delivered the opinion of the court:
Benjamin Meese, an employee of the Seattle Brewing & Malting Company, was fatally injured on April 12, 1913, while engaged about his ordinary duties at its plant in Seattle. Alleging that his death resulted from the negligence of the petitioner railway company, his wife and children brought this action for damages in the district court of the United States. They relied upon the following sections, Remington & Ballinger's Annotated Codes and Statutes of Washington:
The railway company demurred, specifying as one of the grounds therefor: 'That there is no authority in law under which the plaintiffs' action can be maintained as against this answering defendant, it appearing from the complaint that Benjamin Meese, on account of whose wrongful death this action was brought, sustained the injuries [239 U.S. 614, 618] of which complaint is made, at the place of work and plant of his employer, and that plaintiffs' claim comes within the terms of chapter 74 of the Session Laws of the state of Washington for 1911, being an act relating to compensation of injured workmen,' approved March 14, 1911
By the act referred to the legislature of Washington specifically repealed certain sections of Remington & Ballinger's Code, not including 183 and 194; established a comprehensive plan for the relief of workmen injured in extrahazardous work, and their families and dependents, regardless of the question of fault; and likewise made provision for raising the necessary funds by enforced contributions from specified employers, both breweries and railroads being included.
The trial court (206 Fed. 222) held that the purpose of the act of March 14, 1911, was not merely to end controversies between employers and employees in respect of injuries to the latter, but to end all suits at law for the injury or death of employees while engaged in certain occupations, no matter by whom injured or killed, with certain exceptions not here important. And by a judgment dated July 11, 1913, the demurrer was accordingly sustained and the complaint dismissed.
This action of the trial court was reversed by the circuit court of appeals (127 C. C. A. 622, 211 Fed. 254, 4 N. C. C. A. 819), the latter being of opinion that the act in question did not, and was not intended to, deprive complainants of their right to proceed under 183 and 194 of the Code, since deceased was not its employee when the accident occurred. Counsel for the railway called especial attention to Peet v. Mills, 76 Wash. 437, L. R. A. 1916A, 358, 136 Pac. 685, Ann. Cas. 1915D, 154, 4 N. C. C. A. 786, decided November 28, 1913, and insisted that the conclusions there announced were in accord with the opinion and judgment of the district court then under review; but the circuit court of appeals rejected this view, saying: 'We are unable to agree [239 U.S. 614, 619] with counsel that the supreme court of the state of Washington in that case reached a conclusion different from that reached by us in the present case.'
The error now assigned and relied on is: 'That the circuit court of appeals should have followed Peet v. Mills, and have affirmed the judgment of the district court.'
It is settled doctrine that Federal courts must accept the construction of a state statute deliberately adopted by its highest court. Old Colony Trust Co. v. Omaha, 230 U.S. 100, 116 , 57 S. L. ed. 1410, 1416, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 967; Fairfield v. Gallatin County, 100 U.S. 47, 52 , 25 S. L. ed. 544, 546. The supreme court of Washington in Peet v. Mills construed the statute in question, and we think its opinion plainly supports the holding of the district court and is in direct opposition to the conclusion reached by the circuit court of appeals. The following excerpts from the opinion will suffice to indicate its import:
Respondents' suggestion that the construction of the act adopted by the trial court would cause it to conflict with the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment is without merit. They have raised no other question involving application of the Federal Constitution.
The judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals must be reversed and the action of the District Court affirmed.
And it is so ordered.
Mr. Justice McKenna is of opinion that the statute was properly construed by the circuit court of apppeals, and that its conclusions do not conflict with the opinion of the state supreme court. He therefore dissents.