18 N.Y. 534, Curtis v. Rochester and S. Railroad Co.

Citation:18 N.Y. 534
Case Date:March 01, 1859
Court:New York Court of Appeals

Page 534

18 N.Y. 534




New York Court of Appeal

March 1, 1859

Page 535


Alonzo C. Paige, for the appellant.

George Rathbun, for the respondent.


The judge charged the jury in this case, "that the fact of this accident occurring was of itself presumptive evidence of negligence on the part of the defendants. "If by this the judge is to be understood as saying that, in cases of this kind, evidence of the mere happening of an accident, resulting in injury to the plaintiff, without proof of any of the circumstances under which it occurred, establishes, prima facie, the charge of negligence, I am not prepared to assent to the proposition. Carriers of passengers are not insurers; and many injuries may occur to those

Page 536

they transport for which they are not responsible. They are, for obvious reasons, held bound to exert the utmost care and vigilance to secure the safety of the passengers; and are responsible for the slightest negligence.

But injuries may often happen through the fault or misconduct of those whose acts are in no way chargeable to them. In traveling in stage coaches, upon ordinary roads, such injuries would be very frequent, because, in such cases, the proprietors of the coach do not construct the roads, nor control those who travel upon them. For a large portion of the accidents, therefore, which result from defects in the road or collisions with other vehicles the proprietors would not be liable.

The carrier, however, is in all cases bound to provide a safe and secure carriage for the transportation of the passengers; and nothing can exempt him from this responsibility, but the existence of some latent defect, which no reasonable degree of human skill and foresight could guard against; and this obligation extends to every species of appliance belonging to the carrier and used by him in the business in which he is engaged. Consequently, whenever it appears that the accident occurred through some defect in the vehicle, or other apparatus used by the carrier, a strong presumption of negligence arises, founded upon the improbability of the existence of any defect which extreme vigilance, aided by science and skill, could not have detected.

The cases in which the carriers would be exempt from responsibility would be far less frequent where the transportation is upon railroads than where it is upon common roads, because railroad companies have the entire control of the track, and of all engaged in its use. Still, accidents may occur from a multitude of causes, even upon a railroad, for which the company is not responsible. If obstructions are placed, by strangers, upon the road, either through accident or design, the company is not responsible for the consequences, unless its agents have been remiss in not discovering

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them. The straying of cattle or horses upon the roads causes numerous accidents which are not chargeable to the company. If a drunken man falls asleep or a deaf man incautiously walks upon the road, in consequence of which a train is unavoidably thrown from the track, and a passenger is injured, he is without redress as against the company. So if a careless driver, in crossing a track, fails to get his vehicle out of the way of an approaching train. How then can it be assumed, without proof of any sort, when an accident has occurred, that it was caused by some carelessness on the part of the agents of the company, and not by any or either of these numerous causes?

In regard to the carriages and other apparatus used for the carrying of passengers, railroad companies are under the same obligation as that already alluded to in the case of the carrier upon common roads. They make and own their road, and have the exclusive control of that, and of every part of the machinery and apparatus used in connection with it. Passengers have no means of knowing nor any power of remedying its defects, but are forced to trust their lives and persons to the care and watchfulness of the agents of the company. The latter, therefore, is bound to see that the road and all its appurtenances are in perfect order and free from any defect which the utmost vigilance, aided by the highest degree of knowledge and skill, could discover or prevent.

Consequently, whenever it appears that the accident was caused by any deficiency in the road itself, the cars or any portion of the apparatus belonging to the company and used in connection with its business, a presumption of negligence on the part of those whose duty it was to see that every thing was in order, immediately arises; it being extremely unlikely that any defect should exist of so...

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