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U.S. Supreme Court

Mountain Timber Co. v. Washington, 243 U.S. 219 (1917)

Mountain Timber Company v. Washington

No. 13

Argued March 1, 2, 1916

Restored to docket for reargument November 13, 1916

Reargued January 30, 1917

Decided March 6, 1917

243 U.S. 219


The Washington Workmen's Compensation Act, as originally enacted, Laws 1911, c. 74, establishes a state fund for the compensation of workmen injured, and the dependents of workmen killed, in employments classed as hazardous; abolishes, except in a few specified cases, the action at law by employee against employer for damages due to negligence, and deprives the courts of jurisdiction over such controversies. It is obligatory upon both employers and employees. The fund is made the sole source of compensation, and is supplied by assessments upon each employer of definite percentages of his total

Page 243 U. S. 220

payroll. It classifies industries in groups, and aims to adjust the percentage for each group, according to hazard, declaring this the most accurate and equitable method and promising future readjustments by the legislature of both classification and percentages to fit experience. The contributions of each group form a separate account or sub-fund, applicable to no other demands for compensation than those arising in the industries composing that group. Contributions, after the first, are not to exceed what is necessary to meet actual losses in the group for which they are exacted. The act expressly saves all actions and causes existing when it took effect, as between employers and employees, some months after its passage.


(1) The act not being valid against employers if not valid as against employees, an employer may question its constitutionality in both aspects.

(2) Viewed from the standpoint of employees, the act is the same in principle as the act sustained in New York Central R. Co. v. White, ante, 243 U. S. 188.

(3) The act is not objectionable upon the ground that, in violation of the Seventh Amendment, it does away with trial by jury in the federal courts, since it does not undertake to interfere with that mode of trial in respect of private rights of action which are preserved, but abolishes for the future all right of recovery as between employer and employee in the cases which it covers, leaving nothing for trial by jury either in the state or in the federal courts.

(4) Taking effect in futuro and expressly preserving intervening causes of action, the act disturbs no vested rights.

(5) In requiring employers to make payments to the state fund for the compensation of injured employees and the dependents of those killed, without regard to fault, the act does not deprive employers of their property, or of their liberty to acquire it, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, provided the compensation be not excessive and unreasonable, and provided the burden be fairly distributed among the employers included in the industries affected.

(6) In the absence of any showing to the contrary, the compensation provided by the act may be regarded as not unreasonable; this is not to say, however, that any scale of compensation, however insignificant on the one hand or onerous on the other, would be supportable; any question of that kind may be met when it arises.

(7) As for the scheme for distributing the burden among employers, the method of applying percentages to payrolls, in view of the legislative declaration of its accuracy and fairness, cannot be deemed arbitrary if the percentages be fair, and although in this act the percentages seem high, it is plain that, as to each group of industries,

Page 243 U. S. 221

the assessments, after the initial payments, will be limited to the amounts necessary to meet the losses arising in and chargeable to that group.

(8) The declarations of the act should be accepted as further evidence of an intelligent effort to limit the burden to the requirements of each industry.

(9) Since the question whether a state law deprives of a right secured by the Constitution depends not upon how the law is characterized, but upon its practical operation and effect, and since the Constitution does not require a separate exercise of the state powers of regulation and taxation, the crucial question is whether this legislation, be it regarded as an exercise of the power of regulation or a combination of regulation and taxation, clearly appears to be not a fair and reasonable exertion of governmental power, but so extravagant or arbitrary as to constitute abuse of power.

A state, in the exercise of its power to pass such legislation as reasonably is deemed necessary to promote the health, safety, and general welfare of its people, may regulate the carrying on of all those industrial occupations that frequently and inevitably produce personal injuries and disability, with consequent loss of earning power among employees and occasional loss of life of those upon whom others are dependent for support, and may require that these human losses be charged against the industry, either directly or by publicly administering the compensation and distributing the cost among the industries affected by means of a reasonable system of occupation taxes.

In the absence of any particular showing of erroneous classification, the evident purpose of an act to classify various occupations according to the respective hazard of each is sufficient answer to any contention that the act improperly distributes the burdens among the several industries.

One who is engaged in the business of logging timber, operating a logging railroad, and operating a saw mill with power-driven machinery is not in a position to question the validity of a classification of other businesses as hazardous.

The provision in § 4 of the Washington Workmen's Compensation Law making it a misdemeanor for any employer to deduct any part of the premium from the wages or earnings of his employees will not be construed, in the absence of any constraining state construction, so broadly as to prohibit employers and employees, in agreeing upon terms of employment, from taking into consideration the fact that the employer is a contributor to the state fund, and the resulting effect of the act upon the rights of the parties.

Page 243 U. S. 222

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 243 U. S. 227

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