149 U.S. 368 (1893), 89, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company v. Baugh

Docket Nº:No. 89
Citation:149 U.S. 368, 13 S.Ct. 914, 37 L.Ed. 772
Party Name:Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company v. Baugh
Case Date:May 01, 1893
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 368

149 U.S. 368 (1893)

13 S.Ct. 914, 37 L.Ed. 772

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company



No. 89

United States Supreme Court

May 1, 1893




Whether the engineer and fireman of a locomotive engine, running alone on a railroad and without any train attached are fellow servants of the company, so as to preclude the latter from recovering from the company for injuries caused by the negligence of the former is not a question of local law, to be settled by the decisions of the highest court of the state

Page 369

in which a cause of action arises, but is one of general law, to be determined by a reference to all the authorities, and a consideration of the principles underlying the relations of master and servant.

Such engineer and such fireman, when engaged on such duty are, when so considered, fellow servants of the railroad company, and the fireman is precluded by principles of general law from recovering damages from the company for injuries caused, during the running, by the negligence of the engineer.

Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway v. Ross, 112 U.S. 377, explained and distinguished.

John Baugh, defendant in error, was employed as a fireman on a locomotive of the plaintiff in error, and while so employed was injured, as is claimed, through the negligence of the engineer in charge thereof. He commenced a suit to recover for these injuries in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of Ohio.

The circumstances of the injury are these: the locomotive was manned by one Hite, as engineer, and Baugh, as fireman, and was what is called in the testimony a "helper." On May 4, 1885, it left Bellaire, Ohio, attached to a freight train which it helped to the top of the grade about twenty miles west of that point. At the top of the grade, the helper was detached, and then returned alone to Bellaire. There were two ways in which it could return in conformity to the rules of the company: one on the special orders of the train dispatcher at Newark, and the other by following some regular scheduled train, carrying signals to notify trains coming in the opposite direction that the helper was following it. This method was called in the testimony "flagging back." On the day in question, without special orders and not following any scheduled train, the helper started back for Bellaire, and on the way collided with a regular local train, and in the collision Baugh was injured. Baugh had been in the employ of the railroad company about a year, had been fireman about six months, and had run on the helper, two trips a day, about two months. He knew that the helper had to keep out of the way of the trains, and was familiar with the method of flagging back.

No testimony was offered by the defendant, and at the close of plaintiff's testimony, the defendant asked the court to direct a nonsuit, which motion was overruled, to which ruling an exception was duly taken. In its charge to the jury, the court gave this instruction:

If the injury results from negligence or carelessness on the part of one so placed in authority over the employee of the company who is injured as to direct and control that employee, then the company is liable.

To which instruction an exception was duly taken. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff for $6,750, and upon this verdict judgment was entered, to reverse which the railroad company sued out a writ of error from this Court.

Page 370

BREWER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The single question presented for our determination is whether the engineer and fireman of this locomotive, running alone and without any train attached, were fellow servants of the company so as to preclude the latter from recovering from the company for injuries caused by the negligence of the former.

This is not a question of local law, to be settled by an examination merely of the decisions of the Supreme Court of Ohio, the state in which the cause of action arose and in which the suit was brought, but rather one of general law, to be determined by a reference to all the authorities and a consideration of the principles underlying the relations of master and servant.

The question as to what is a matter of local and what of general, law, and the extent to which in the latter this Court should follow the decisions of the state courts, has been often presented. The unvarying rule is that in matters of the latter class, this Court, while leaning towards an agreement with the

Page 371

views of the state courts, always exercises an independent judgment, and as unvarying has been the course of decision that the question of the responsibility of a railroad corporation for injuries caused to or by its servants is one of general law. In the case of Swift v. Tyson, 16 Pet. 1, the first proposition was considered at length. On p. 18, it is thus stated:

But, admitting the doctrine to be fully settled in New York, it remains to be considered whether it is obligatory upon this Court if it differs from the principles established in the general commercial law. It is observable that the courts of New York do not found their decisions upon this point upon any local statute or positive, fixed, or ancient local usage, but they deduce the doctrine from the general principles of commercial law. It is, however, contended that the thirty-fourth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, c. 20, furnishes a rule obligatory upon this Court to follow the decisions of the state tribunals in all cases to which they apply. That section provides

that the laws of the several states, except where the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States shall otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in trials at common law in the courts of the United States in cases where they apply.

In order to maintain the argument, it is essential therefore to hold that the word "laws" in this section includes within the scope of its meaning the decisions of the local tribunals. In the ordinary use of language, it will hardly be contended that the decisions of courts constitute laws. They are, at most, only evidence of what the laws are, and are not of themselves laws. They are often reexamined, reversed, and qualified by the courts themselves whenever they are found to be either defective or ill founded or otherwise incorrect. The laws of a state are more usually understood to mean the rules and enactments promulgated by the legislative authority thereof, or long established local customs having the force of laws. In all the various cases which have hitherto come before us for decision, this Court have uniformly supposed that the true interpretation of the thirty-fourth section limited its application to state laws strictly local -- that is to say, to the positive statutes of the

Page 372

state and the construction thereof adopted by the local tribunals, and to rights and titles to things having a permanent locality, such as the rights and titles to real estate and other matters immovable and intra-territorial in their nature and character.

Notwithstanding the interpretation placed by this decision upon the thirty-fourth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress has never amended that section, so it must be taken as clear that the construction thus placed is the true construction, and acceptable to the legislative as well as to the judicial branch of the government. This decision was in 1842. Forty years thereafter, in Burgess v. Seligman, 107 U.S. 20, the matter was again fully considered, and it was said by Mr. Justice Bradley, on p. 33 and 34, that

the federal courts have an independent jurisdiction in the administration of state laws, coordinate with and not subordinate to that of the state courts, and are bound to exercise their own judgment as to the meaning and effect of those laws. The existence of two coordinate jurisdictions in the same territory is peculiar, and the results would be anomalous and inconvenient but for the exercise of mutual respect and deference. Since the ordinary administration of the law is carried on by the state courts, it necessarily happens that by the course of their decisions, certain rules are established which become rules of property and action in the state, and have all the effect of law, and which it would be wrong to disturb. This is especially true with regard to the law of real estate and the construction of state constitutions and statutes. Such established rules are always regarded by the federal courts, no less than by the state courts themselves, as authoritative declarations of what the law is. But where the law has not been thus settled, it is the right and duty of the federal courts to exercise their own judgment, as they always do in reference to the doctrines of commercial law and general jurisprudence. . . . As, however, the very object of giving to the national [13 S.Ct. 916] courts jurisdiction to administer the laws of the states in controversies between citizens of different states was to institute independent tribunals, which, it might be supposed, would be unaffected by local

Page 373

prejudices and sectional views, it would be a dereliction of their duty not to exercise an independent judgment in cases not foreclosed by previous adjudication. As this matter has received our special consideration, we have endeavored thus briefly to state our views with distinctness, in order to obviate any misapprehensions that may arise from language and expressions used in previous decisions. The principal cases bearing upon the subject are referred to in the note, but it is not deemed necessary to discuss them in detail.

And in the note referred to, over fifty cases are cited in which the proposition...

To continue reading