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NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY v. EVERETT.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: March 5, 1894.

NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY
v.
EVERETT.

ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF NORTH DAKOTA.

Author: Shiras

[ 152 U.S. Page 111]

 MR. JUSTICE SHIRAS, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

While it is true that the defendant company excepted to the court's refusal to give, on the whole evidence, a peremptory charge in favor of the defendant, and has assigned such refusals for error, yet, in the brief of plaintiff in error, the learned counsel have not thought fit to discuss those assignments, but have put their case mainly upon the error alleged to have been committed by the trial court in instructing the jury in the following terms:

"If you find the lumber was negligently loaded -- that is, in an unusual manner -- and that this fact was unknown to the plaintiff, then when the plaintiff was ordered to couple the cars he had a right to assume that the car was properly loaded, and act on that assumption; but if before the peril was encountered he discovered the projecting lumber, he should have desisted from any effort to make the coupling, or should have made it in some manner that would not have subjected him to injury, if it was practicable for him to do so; and if by the exercise of proper diligence he might have discovered the projecting lumber before the accident, and in time to avoid it, he cannot recover."

The criticism made upon this instruction is that the court erred in stating that Everett had a right to assume that the car was properly loaded, without, at the same time, telling the jury that some portion of the duties of a car inspector were cast upon Everett himself, and that he should have discharged those duties before he undertook the work.

[ 152 U.S. Page 112]

     But though the court did say that Everett had a right to assume that the car was properly loaded and to act on that assumption, yet, at the same time, the court told the jury that if Everett had discovered the projecting lumber before the peril was encountered, he should have desisted from his effort to make the coupling, or should have made it in some manner that would not have subjected him to injury, and that if by the exercise of proper diligence he might have discovered the projecting timber before the accident and in time to avoid it, he could not recover.

In effect, the jury were told to find whether the car was or was not properly loaded, and whether the plaintiff, by the exercise of proper diligence, could or could not have discovered the projecting timber before the cars came together and in time to avoid the danger. In other words, the jury were instructed that if the car was negligently loaded, with the sticks of timber extending too far beyond the end of the car, and if the plaintiff could not, in the exercise of proper diligence, have perceived the projecting timber in time to escape, then he was entitled to recover.

We are unable to detect any error or unfairness in these instructions.

It appeared that Everett was a young and inexperienced man; that this was his first service in attempting to couple a car with a projecting load; the duty he was expented to perform gave him no time to narrowly inspect the approaching car or to observe its condition. His attention was not called to the projecting timber until he was in the very act of making the coupling, and when his effort to avoid it was too late. He had first to throw the switch to receive the approaching car, and then run ahead and get ready to put the pin in the drawhead. It was shown that there was no pin in the drawhead of the stationary car, and he was obliged to pick one up and put it in place ready to make the coupling. These duties gave him no opportunity to closely scan the car that was in rapid motion behind him. In such circumstances, when the whole transaction is the work of a moment, and when his duty calls upon him to act promptly, a man cannot be expected

[ 152 U.S. Page 113]

     to act with circumspection. At all events, we think that, in view of the fact that the car was improperly loaded, that Everett was new and inexperienced in such work, and that he was required to perform the double duty of throwing the switch and making the coupling, the case was an appropriate one for submission to a jury.

In the case of Dunlap v. Northeastern Railroad Co., 130 U.S. 649, 652, we held that the Circuit Court erred in not submitting the question of contributory negligence to the jury, as the conclusion did not follow, as matter of law, that no recovery could be had upon any view which could be properly taken of the facts the evidence tended to establish.

And in Richmond and Danville Railroad v. Powers, 149 U.S. 443, we said that where in an action against a common carrier to recover damages for injuries there is uncertainty as to the existence of either negligence or contributory negligence, the question is not one of law, but of fact, to be settled by a jury; and this whether the uncertainty arises from a conflict in the testimony, or because the facts, being undisputed, fair-minded men will honestly draw different conclusions from them.

In Sullivan v. N.Y. & N.H. Railroad, 154 Mass. 524, 527, it was held that the court is not permitted to take from the jury these questions of negligence and to decide them for the jury and for the case, unless the evidence shows that the negligence of the defendant in error was gross and wilful; if it was less than that, then the questions of negligence were for the jury, and are all settled in favor of defendant in error by the verdict.

It is not easy, in a subject of this kind, to lay down unbending rules, and conflicting cases can readily be found. But, without pursuing the subject further, we are satisfied that, in the present case, there was no conclusive evidence of a want of due care on the part of Everett in not observing the projecting timber while he was in the discharge of his duty, and while his attention was directed to the work in which he was engaged.

The judgment of the court below is

Affirmed.

18940305

© 1998 VersusLaw Inc.



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