Employers' Liability Cases 207 U.S. 463 (1908) 223 U.S. 1 (1912)
EMPLOYERS' LIABILITY CASES 207 U.S. 463 (1908) 223 U.S. 1 (1912)
The first employers ' liability act, passed in 1906, made a common carrier liable for the on-the-job injury or death of any employee and eliminated the "fellow-servant" rule by which an employer had been relieved of liability for an injury to one worker caused by another's negligence. In the first Employers' Liability Cases, a 5–4 Supreme Court held that Congress had exceeded its interstate commerce power.
Justice edward d. white's opinion for the Court (only Justice william r. day concurred completely in his opinion) addressed two objections to the act: that Congress had no power to regulate the subject, and that the act regulated things outside the scope of the commerce power. He dismissed the first objection. The commerce clause set no limits on subjects regulated. Indeed, the Court decided only the extent of Congress's power, not the wisdom of its action. "We fail to perceive any just reason for holding that Congress is without power to regulate the relation of master and servant…[asa subject of] interstate commerce." The argument that the act had unconstitutionally regulated interstate commerce proved more troublesome. Because the act imposed liability on employers "without qualification or restriction as to the business in which the carriers or their employees may be engaged at the time of injury, of necessity [it] includes subjects wholly outside the power of Congress to regulate commerce." White refused to accept the contention that the Court ought to interpret the act as applying solely to interstate commerce even though it did not explicitly say so.
Chief Justice melville w. fuller and Justice david j. brewer concurred in Justice rufus peckham's opinion endorsing White's result but retreating from White's statement about Congress's power over master-servant relations. In a lengthy dissent, Justice william moody argued that the Court was obliged to read the statute so as to preserve its constitutionality. "We think that the act, reasonably and properly interpreted, applies … only to cases of interstate commerce … and not to domestic commerce."
After Congress enacted another version of the law accommodating the majority's objections, a unanimous Court upheld its constitutionality. Justice willis van devanter's opinion broadly asserted the reach of Congress's power over the subject. He disposed of the objection that the act, by discarding common law doctrines, had exceeded Congress's power: "A person has no property, no vested interest, in any rule of common law." The act also promoted safety and advanced commerce, and Van Devanter dismissed the contention that it violated the due process clause's guarantee of freedom of contract.