220 U.S. 559 (1911), 329, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railway Company v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 329
Citation:220 U.S. 559, 31 S.Ct. 612, 55 L.Ed. 582
Party Name:Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railway Company v. United States
Case Date:May 15, 1911
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 559

220 U.S. 559 (1911)

31 S.Ct. 612, 55 L.Ed. 582

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railway Company


United States

No. 329

United States Supreme Court

May 15, 1911

Argued March 9, 1911




Under the Safety Appliance Acts of March 2, 1893, c.196, 27 Stat. 531, April 1, 1896, c. 87, 29 Stat. 8, and March 2, 1903, c. 976, 32 Stat. 943, there is imposed an absolute duty on the carrier, and the penalty cannot be escaped by exercise of reasonable care.

This Court, in St. Louis, I. M. & S. Railway Co. v. Taylor, 210 U.S. 281, considered and determined the scope and effect of the Safety Appliance Acts and the degree of care required by the carrier, and the question is not open to further discussion, as this Court should not disturb a construction which has been widely accepted and acted upon by the courts.

For this Court to give a construction to an act of Congress contrary to one previously given would cause uncertainty, if not mischief, in the administration of law in federal courts, and, having placed an interpretation on the Safety Appliance Acts, this Court will adhere thereto until Congress, by amendment, changes the rule announced in St. Louis, I. M. & S. Railway Co. v. Taylor, supra.

An action for penalties under the Safety Appliance Acts is a civil, and not a criminal one, and the enforcement of such penalties is not governed by considerations controlling prosecution of criminal offenses.

Congress has unquestioned power to declare an offense and to exclude the elements of knowledge and due diligence from the inquiry as to its commission.

170 F. 556 affirmed.

The facts, which involve the construction of the Safety Appliance Acts and the duties and liabilities of carriers to equip their cars with safety appliances, are stated in the opinion.

Page 567

HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Two separate actions were brought by the government in the District Court of the United States for the District of Nebraska, against the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company, an Iowa corporation engaged as a common carrier in interstate commerce. The object of each action was to recover certain penalties which, the United States alleged, had been incurred by the company for violations, in several [31 S.Ct. 613] specified instances, of the Safety Appliance Acts of Congress. March 2, 1893, c. 196, 27 Stat. 532; April 1, 1896, 29 Stat. 85, c. 87; March 2, 1903, 32 Stat. 943, c. 976. By consent of the parties and by order of court, the two actions were consolidated and tried together. At the trial, the court directed a verdict of guilty as to each cause of action, and a judgment for $300 was rendered for the government in one case and for $100 in the other.

By the original Act of March 2, 1893 (27 Stat. 531, c. 196), it was provided that from and after the first day of January, 1898, it should be unlawful for any common carrier engaged in moving interstate

Page 568

traffic by railroad to use on its line any locomotive engine not equipped with a power driving-wheel brake and appliances for operating the train brake system, or, after that date, to run any train in such traffic that had not a sufficient nummber of cars in it so equipped with power or train brakes that the engineer on the locomotive drawing such train can control its speed without requiring brakemen to use the common hand brake for that purpose.

The second section provided

that, on and after the first day of January, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, it shall be unlawful for any such common carrier to haul or permit to be hauled or used on its line any car used in moving interstate traffic not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and which can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going between the ends of the cars.

The sixth section, as amended April first, 1896, provided that any such common carrier using a locomotive engine, running a train, or hauling or permitting to be hauled or used on its line any car in violation of any of the provisions of this act

shall be liable to a penalty of one hundred dollars for each and every such violation, to be recovered in a suit or suits to be brought by the United States district attorney in the district court of the United States having jurisdiction in the locality where such violation shall have been committed . . . Provided, That nothing in this act contained shall apply to trains composed of four-wheel cars, or to trains composed of eight-wheel standard logging cars, where the height of such car from top of rail to center of coupling does not exceed twenty-five inches, or to locomotives used in hauling such trains when such cars or locomotives are exclusively used for the transportation of logs.

The eighth section is in these words:

That any employee of any such common carrier who may be injured by any locomotive, car, or train in use contrary to the provision of this act shall not be deemed thereby to have assumed the

Page 569

risk thereby occasioned, although continuing in the employment of such carrier after the unlawful use of such locomotive, car, or train had been brought to his knowledge.

After referring to various cases holding that the omission of Congress to make knowledge and diligence on the part of the carrier ingredients of the act condemned, the trial court said:

Its omission was intentional, in order that this statute might induce such a high degree of care and diligence on the part of the railway company as to necessitate a change in the manner of inspecting appliances, and to protect the lives and the safety of its employees, provided the accident occurs from a defective appliance such as is designated in this act. And for these reasons the jury will be peremptorily instructed to return a verdict for the government on each count of the petition.

In the circuit court of appeals, that judgment was affirmed. In the course of its opinion the latter court said:

The cause is simplified by the concession of counsel for the railway company that there was evidence tending to prove the defective condition of each of the four cars as charged, and that they were all being used at the time stated in the several counts in hauling interstate commerce, or as a part of a train containing other cars which were doing so. The sole contention is that, notwithstanding this concession, inasmuch as it appears by the proof that defendant did not know its cars were out of repair, and had no actual intention at the time to violate the law, but, on the contrary, had exercised reasonable care to keep them in repair by the usual inspections, it is not liable in this action. Learned counsel concede, what is undoubtedly true, that sustaining their contention involves a reversal of the doctrine unanimously declared by this Court in United States v. Atchison, T. & S.F. R. Co., 163 F. 517, and United States v. Denver & Rio Grande R. Co., 163 F.

Page 570

519, and a disregard of what they call the dictum of the Supreme Court in St. Louis, I. M. & S. Ry. Co. v. Taylor, 210 U.S. 281, and they accordingly invite us to enter upon a reconsideration of the questions so decided. It was held by us, and in our opinion it was necessarily held by the Supreme Court in the Taylor case, that the duty of railroads under the statute in question is an absolute duty, and not one which is discharged by [31 S.Ct. 614] the exercise of reasonable care or diligence. Since those cases were decided, this Court, in the case of Chi., Mil. & St.P. Ry. Co. v. United States, 165 F. 423, has again approved of their doctrine, and the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the case of Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. United States, decided March 1, 1909, 168 F. 175, in considering this question, made a review of pertinent authorities, and particularly of the cases of this court as well as of the Taylor case, and in an exhaustive opinion reached the same conclusion that we did. . . . The act made it unlawful for railroads to use cars not equipped as therein provided, and thereby imposed a duty upon railroad companies to equip cars accordingly. This was, by clear and unequivocal language of the lawmaker, made an absolute duty, not dependable upon the exercise of diligence or the existence of any wrong intent on the part of the railroad companies. Whether a defendant carrier knew its cars were out of order or not is immaterial. Its duty was to know they were in order and kept in order at all times. Cases supra. A breach of this duty, like the breach of most civil duties, naturally entailed a liability, and Congress fixed that liability not as a punishment for a criminal offense, but as a civil consequence, so far as the government was concerned, of a failure to perform the duty which, in the opinion of Congress, the public weal demanded should be performed by railroad companies.

170 F. 556.

Does the act of Congress in question impose on an interstate

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carrier an absolute duty to see to it that no car is hauled or permitted to be hauled or used on its line unless it be equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and which can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going between the ends of the cars? Can the carrier engaged in moving interstate traffic escape the penalty prescribed for a violation of the act, in the particulars just mentioned, by showing that it had exercised reasonable care in equipping its cars with the required coupler, and had used due diligence to ascertain, from time to time, whether such cars were properly equipped?

The court below held that an explicit answer to the above questions was to be found in St. Louis, I. M. & S. Ry. Co. v. Taylor, supra. The government insists that such was the effect of the decision of that case. The defendant contends that the questions here...

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