Thompson v. Lawson/Opinion of the Court
Mr. George W. Ericksen, Tampa, Fla., for respondent Gulf Florida Terminal Co., et al.
Mr. Lester S. Jayson, New York City, for respondent Deputy Comm.
On June 15, 1951, Otis Thompson died from injuries suffered while loading a ship for his employer. Two women sought a death benefit under the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, 33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq., each claiming to be his 'widow.' The Deputy Commissioner denied both claims, that of one woman on the ground that she was not the lawful wife of the decedent, and that of the other because at the time of Otis' death she was living apart from him not 'by reason of his desertion', 33 U.S.C. § 902(16), 33 U.S.C.A. § 902(16). On a review of the latter dismissal, the District Court sustained the Deputy Commissioner's order, and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 205 F.2d 527. In doing so, that court rejected contrary decisions of the Courts of Appeals for the Second and Ninth Circuits, Associated Operating Co. v. Lowe, 138 F.2d 916, Moore Dry Dock Co. v. Pillsbury, 169 F.2d 988. We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict. 346 U.S. 921, 74 S.Ct. 306.
The Deputy Commissioner made these findings. Otis and Julia Thompson were married in 1921, and lived together as husband and wife until November 1925, when Otis deserted her. They never lived together again, and he never contributed anything to the support of Julia or their two children, nor did she ever endeavor to secure such support. Meanwhile Otis had taken up with one Sallie Williams, and they went through a marriage ceremony in 1929. Julia, in turn, found another mate, one Jimmy Fuller, whom she 'married' in 1940. Thereafter she was known as Julia Fuller. She was formally divorced from Fuller in 1949. Shortly before Otis' death, he asked Julia to 'take him back,' but she refused, having no intention of ever again living with him and resuming the relationship of husband and wife.
The single, unentangled question before us is whether, on these unchallenged facts, Julia was at the time of Otis' death in 1951, his statutory 'widow,' as that term is described by Congress in the Longshoremen's Act: 'The term 'widow' includes only the decedent's wife living with or dependent for support upon him at the time of his death; or living apart for justifiable cause or by reason of his desertion at such time', 33 U.S.C. § 902(16), 33 U.S.C.A. § 902(16). We agree with the court below that since she was not at the time of her husband's death living apart from him 'by reason of his desertion', she was not a 'widow' within the scope of this provision. [*] Whatever may have been the situation prior to her 'marriage' to Jimmy Fuller in 1940, it is clear that after that date she lived as the wife of Jimmy Fuller, held herself out as his wife, and had severed all meaningful relationship with the decedent.
We do not reach this conclusion by assessing the marital conduct of the parties. That is an inquiry which may be relevant to legal issues arising under State domestic relations law. Our concern is with the proper interpretation of the Federal Longshoremen's Act. Congress might have provided in that Act that a woman is entitled to compensation so long as she is still deemed to be the lawful wife of the decedent under State law, as, for example, where a foreign divorce obtained by her is without constitutional validity in the forum State. But Congress did not do so. It defined the requirements which every claimant for compensation must meet. Considering the purpose of this federal legislation and the manner in which Congress has expressed that purpose, the essential requirement is a conjugal nexus between the claimant and the decedent subsisting at the time of the latter's death, which, for present purposes, means that she must continue to live as the deserted wife of the latter. That nexus is wholly absent here. Julia herself, by her purported remarriage, severed the bond which was the basis of her right to claim a death benefit as Otis' statutory dependent. The very practical considerations of this Compensation Act should not be subordinated to the empty abstraction that once a wife has been deserted, she always remains a deserted wife, no matter what-the nomatter what in this case being the wife's conscious choice to terminate her prior conjugal relationship by embarking upon another permanent relationship.
The judgment is affirmed.
Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS and Mr. Justice MINTON concur, dissenting.