224 U.S. 547 (1912), 224, American Railroad Company v. Birch

Docket Nº:No. 224
Citation:224 U.S. 547, 32 S.Ct. 603, 56 L.Ed. 879
Party Name:American Railroad Company v. Birch
Case Date:May 13, 1912
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 547

224 U.S. 547 (1912)

32 S.Ct. 603, 56 L.Ed. 879

American Railroad Company



No. 224

United States Supreme Court

May 13, 1912

Submitted April 24, 1912




The Employers' Liability Act of 1908 expressly applies to, and is in force in, Porto Rico, but quaere, and not necessary to decide in this case, whether the Safety Appliance Acts apply to, or are in force in, Porto Rico.

Where words of a statute are clear, they must be strictly followed even if the construction causes apparently unnecessary inconvenience.

Where the purpose of Congress is clear, the courts must yield to such purpose and assume that all contending considerations were taken into account by Congress.

The National Employers' Liability Act of 1908 gives the right of recovery to the personal representatives, and not to the heirs, of one killed by the negligence of the employer, and the heirs cannot maintain an action even where the local statute, as in Porto Rico, gives a right to the heirs as well as to the personal representatives to maintain such an action.

A defendant company has the right under the Employers' Liability Act of 1908 to have its liability determined in one action.

5 P.R.F. 273 reversed.

The facts, which involve the construction of the Employers' Liability Act of 1908 and its application to Porto Rico, are stated in the opinion.

Page 551

MCKENNA, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Action for damages for the death, through the alleged negligence of plaintiff in error, of the husband and father of defendants in error, who are, respectively, deceased's widow and son.

The action was originally brought by Ann Elizabeth Birch. A demurrer was filed to the complaint, which was sustained in part, and the court directed counsel

to so amend the complaint as to show whether or not the plaintiff is the sole heir of the deceased, or, if she sues for the benefit of certain other heirs, then the complaint must specifically state the name of said other heirs, and state under what law the said action is brought.

An amended complaint was filed, alleging that the deceased, Francisco Abraham Birch, was, when killed at his post of duty as brakeman on a train of the railroad which was running through the City of Aguadilla at a high rate of speed, and contrary to an ordinance of the city, in consequence

Page 552

of which speed and a defect in one of the wheels of the car, the body of the car left the tracks and was thrown to the ground, crushing the deceased beneath it and thus causing instant death.

It is alleged that a proper inspection of the wheels would have disclosed the defect in it, and further that, if the train had been running within the limits of the requirements of the law, the train might and would have been stopped before the accident occurred.

At the time of his death, it is alleged, that the deceased was forty-seven years of age, was receiving $42 per month, was a skilled and efficient railroad employee, and was in vigorous health and strength. And it is alleged that his death was caused without negligence on his part, and while he was in the faithful discharge of his duty.

It is declared that the

action is based upon an act of Congress entitled, "An Act Relating to the Liability of Common Carriers by Railroad to Their Employees in Certain cases," approved April 22, 1908.

It is alleged that Ernest Victor Birch was poor in health and frail in body, and was dependent upon deceased for support.

Damages were prayed at $10,000.

The railroad company denied the specific allegations against it of speed and failure to inspect the wheels, alleged that they were inspected, and that no defects were visible or could be ascertained. It also put in issue the allegations of the complaint in regard to Ernest Victor Birch.

The answer alleged that no administration proceedings had been had on the estate of deceased, and that neither of the plaintiffs has been declared his heir, as required by law. It is also alleged that Ernest Victor Birch was over the age of twenty-one years, and that deceased was under no legal obligation to support him.

The case was tried to a jury upon evidence conflicting

Page 553

upon certain of the issues. There was no conflict as to the circumstances of the accident, the death of Birch in the line of duty, and that the accident was caused by a broken wheel and that the train was not equipped with air brakes, but only with the ordinary hand brakes. There was conflict as to the speed of the train and as to whether the engineer in charge of the locomotive could see signals to stop, or whether he disregarded them.

The instructions of the court, so far as material, will be noticed presently in considering the assignments of error.

These assignments are: (1) the court erred in overruling the demurrer, (2) in denying the motion to dismiss the action and direct verdict on the ground that it had not been brought by the personal representative of the deceased, as required by the statute upon which it was based, (3) in holding that the heirs could sue in their own names, (4) in refusing to give the following:

That the court instruct the jury that the federal act with regard to safety appliances has no application to the question at bar.

And (5) in refusing to instruct the jury as follows:

That they [the plaintiffs in action] are entitled to recover the actual compensation that they would have received if he [the deceased] had not been killed, and that would be limited to the purchase of an annuity for his recognized period of life.

These assignments are reducible to three propositions, to-wit: (1) the capacity of plaintiffs to sue, (2) the application of the safety appliance law, and (3) the measure of damages. Their discussion requires a consideration of the Employers'...

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