174 U.S. 96 (1899), 147, Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company v. Matthews

Docket Nº:No. 147
Citation:174 U.S. 96, 19 S.Ct. 609, 43 L.Ed. 909
Party Name:Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company v. Matthews
Case Date:April 17, 1899
Court:United States Supreme Court

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174 U.S. 96 (1899)

19 S.Ct. 609, 43 L.Ed. 909

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company



No. 147

United States Supreme Court

April 17, 1899

Submitted January 18, 1899




The provision in § 2 of c. 155 of the Acts of Kansas of 1885, entitled "An act relating to the liability of railroads for damages by fire," that

in all actions commenced under this act, if the plaintiff shall recover, there shall be allowed him by the court a reasonable attorney's fee, which shall become a part of the judgment,

must, for reasons stated in the opinion of the court, be sustained as legislation authorized by the Constitution of the United States.

The statement of the case will be found in the opinion of the Court.

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BREWER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BREWER delivered the opinion of the court.

In 1885, the Legislature of Kansas passed the following act:

An act relating to the liability of railroads for damages by fire.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the legislature of the State of Kansas: That in all actions against any railway company organized or [19 S.Ct. 610] doing business in this state for damages by fire caused by the operating of said railroad, it shall be only necessary for the plaintiff in said action to establish the fact that said fire complained of was caused by the operating of said railroad, and the amount of his damages (which proof shall be prima facie evidence of negligence on the part of said railroad): Provided, that in estimating the damages under this act, the contributory negligence of the plaintiff shall be taken into consideration.

SEC. 2. In all actions commenced under this act, if the plaintiff shall recover, there shall be allowed him by the court a reasonable attorney's fee, which shall become a part of the judgment.

Sess.Laws 1885, p. 258, c. 155.

Under it, an action was brought in the District Court of Cloud County which resulted in a judgment against the railroad company, plaintiff in error, for $2,094 damages and $225 attorney's fees. This judgment having been affirmed by the supreme court of the state, the company brought the case here on error.

All questions of fact are settled by the decision of the state courts, Hedrick v. Atchison, Topeka &c. Railroad, 167 U.S. 673, 677, and cases cited in the opinion, and the single matter for our consideration is the constitutionality of this statute. It is contended that it is in conflict with the fourteenth amendment to the federal Constitution, and this contention was distinctly ruled upon by the supreme court of the state adversely to the railroad company. In support of this contention, great reliance is placed upon Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway v. Ellis, 165 U.S. 150. In that case, a statute of Texas allowing an attorney's fee to the plaintiffs in actions against railroad corporations on claims, not exceeding in

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amount $50, for personal services rendered or labor done, or for damages, or for overcharges on freight, or for stock killed or injured, was adjudged unconstitutional. It was held to be simply a statute imposing a penalty on railroad corporations for failing to pay certain debts, and not one to enforce compliance with any police regulations. It was so regarded by the supreme court of the state, and its construction was accepted in this Court as correct. While the right to classify was conceded, it was said that such classification must be based upon some difference bearing a reasonable and just relation to the act in respect to which the classification is attempted; that no mere arbitrary selection can ever be justified by calling it classification. And there is no good reason why railroad corporations alone should be punished for not paying their debts. Compelling the payment of debts is not a police regulation. We see no reason to change the views then expressed, and if the statute before us were the counterpart of that, we should be content to refer to that case as conclusive.

But while there is a similarity, yet there are important differences, and differences which in our judgment compel an opposite conclusion. The purpose of this statute is not to compel the payment of debts, but to secure the utmost care on the part of railroad companies to prevent the escape of fire from their moving trains. This is obvious from the fact that liability for damages by fire is not cast upon such corporations in all cases, but only in those in which the fire is "caused by the operating" of the road. It is true that no special act of precaution was required of the railroad companies, failure to do which was to be visited with this penalty, so that it is not precisely like the statutes imposing double damages for stock killed where there has been a failure to fence. Missouri Pac. Railway Co. v. Humes, 115 U.S. 512. And yet its purpose is not different. Its monition to the railroads is not "pay your debts without suit or you will, in addition, have o pay attorney's fees," but rather,

see to it that no fire escapes from your locomotives, for if it does, you will be liable not merely for the damage it causes, but also for the reasonable attorney's fees of the owner of the property injured or destroyed.


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has been frequently before the Supreme Court of Kansas, has always been so interpreted by that court, and its validity sustained on that ground. In Missouri Pac. Railway Co. v. Merrill, 40 Kan. 404, 408, it was said:

The objection that this legislation is special and unequal cannot be sustained. The dangerous element employed, and the hazards to persons and property arising from the running of trains and the operation of railroads, justifies such a law, and the fact that all persons and corporations brought under its influence are subjected to the same duties and liabilities, under similar circumstances disposes of the objections raised.

And in the opinion filed in the present case, 58 Kan. 447, 450, that court observed:

Our statute is somewhat in the nature of a police regulation, designed to enforce care on the part of railroad companies to prevent the communication of fire and the destruction of property along railroad lines. It is not intended merely to impose a burden on railroad corporations that private persons are not required to bear, and the remedy offered is one the legislature has the right to give in such cases. This is the view heretofore held by this court, which we see no reason for changing. Railway Co. v. Snaveley, 47 Kan. 637; Same v. Curtis, 48 Kan. 179; Same v. McMullen, 48 Kan. 281; Missouri Pac. R. Co. v. Henning, 48 Kan. 465.

It is true that the Ellis case was one to recover damages for the killing of a colt by a passing train. And so it might be argued that the protection of the track from straying stock and the protection of stock from moving trains would, within the foregoing principles, uphold legislation imposing an attorney's fee in actions against railroad corporations. We were not insensible to this argument when [19 S.Ct. 611] that case was considered, but we accepted the interpretation of the statute and its purpose given by the Supreme Court of Texas, as appears from this extract from our opinion (p. 153):

The supreme court of the state considered this statute as a whole, and held it valid, and as such it is presented to us for consideration. Considered as such, it is simply a statute imposing a penalty

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upon railroad corporations for a failure to pay certain debts.

And again, referring specifically to this matter (page 158):

While this action is for stock killed, the recovery of attorney's fees cannot be sustained upon the theory just suggested. There is no fence law in Texas. The legislature of the state has not deemed it necessary for the protection of life or property to require railroads to fence their tracks, and, as no duty is imposed, there can be no penalty for nonperformance. Indeed, the statute does not proceed upon any such theory; it is broader in its scope. Its object is to compel the payment of the several classes of debts named, and was so regarded by the supreme court of the state.

Indeed, the limit in amount ($50) found in that statute made it clear that no police regulation was intended, for if it were, the more stock found on the track, the greater would be the danger and the more imperative the need of regulation and penalty.

So that, according to the interpretation placed upon the Texas statute by its supreme court, its purpose was generally to compel the payment of small debts, and the fact that among the debts so provided for was the liability for stock killed was not sufficient to justify us in separating the statute into fragments and upholding one part on a theory inconsistent with the policy of the state while, on the other hand, the purpose of this statute is, as declared by the Supreme Court of Kansas, protection against fire -- a matter in the nature of a police regulation.

It may be suggested that this line of argument leads to the conclusion that a statute of one state whose purpose is declared by its supreme court to be a matter of police regulation will be upheld by this Court as not in conflict with the federal Constitution, while a statute of another state, precisely similar in its terms, will be adjudged in conflict with that Constitution if the supreme court of that state interprets its purpose and scope as entirely outside police regulation. But this by no means follows. This Court is not concluded by the opinion of the supreme court of the state. Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 366. It forms its own independent judgment as to the scope and purpose of a statute, while, of

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course, leaning to any interpretation which has...

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