227 U.S. 59 (1913), 242, Michigan Central Railroad Company v. Vreeland

Docket Nº:No. 242
Citation:227 U.S. 59, 33 S.Ct. 192, 57 L.Ed. 417
Party Name:Michigan Central Railroad Company v. Vreeland
Case Date:January 20, 1913
Court:United States Supreme Court

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227 U.S. 59 (1913)

33 S.Ct. 192, 57 L.Ed. 417

Michigan Central Railroad Company



No. 242

United States Supreme Court

January 20, 1913

Argued December 4, 1912




If the constitutional questions on which the writ of error was based were not foreclosed when the writ was sued out, this Court retains jurisdiction to consider other assignments of error even if the constitutional questions have meanwhile been decided in other cases adversely to plaintiff in error.

The Employers' Liability Act of 1908 will not receive such a narrow interpretation as to defeat all liability because the injured employee survived the injury for a brief period.

Congress has always had power under the commerce clause of the Constitution to regulate the liability of interstate carriers to their employees for injuries, but until it did act, the subject was within the police power of the states. Since the passage of the Employers' Liability Act of 1908, that act is paramount and exclusive, and so remains unless and until Congress shall again remit the subject to the states. Reid v. Colorado, 187 U.S. 137.

A federal statute upon a subject exclusively under federal control must be construed by itself and cannot be pieced out by state legislation. If a liability does not exist under the Employers' Liability Act of 1908, it does not exist by virtue of any state legislation on the same subject.

At common law, the right of action for an injury to the person is extinguished by the death of the party injured, whether death be instantaneous or not. As the Employers' Liability Act of 1908 did not provide for any such survival, the right was extinguished by death.

At common law, loss and damage may accrue and a right of action accrue to persons dependent upon one wrongfully injured, but this cause of action, except for loss of services prior to death, abates at the death.

The evident purpose, however, of Congress in enacting the Employers' Liability Act of 1908 was to save a right of action to certain relatives dependent upon the employee wrongfully injured for the loss and financial damage resulting from his death, and there is no express or implied limitation of the liability to cases in which death was instantaneous.

This liability is for pecuniary damage only, and the statute should be construed in this respect as Lord Campbell's Act has been construed,

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not as granting a continuance of the right the injured employ had, but as granting a new and independent cause of action.

The pecuniary loss recoverable under the Employers' Liability Act of 1908 by one dependent upon the employee wrongfully killed must be a loss which can be measured by some standard, and does not include an inestimable loss such as that of society and companionship of the deceased or of care and advice in case of a husband for his wife.

There is no hard and fast rule by which pecuniary damages may be measured in all cases.

A minor child sustains a loss from the death of a parent of a different kind from that of wife or husband from the death of the spouse; while the former is capable of definite valuation the latter is not.

In this case, the judgment under the Employers' Liability Act of 1908, of damages for death of a husband who survived the injury for a brief period is reversed because, although the wife was entitled to maintain the action notwithstanding the death was not instantaneous, the damages were not properly estimated, as the court charged the jury that they could consider the relation of husband and wife and the care and advice of the former to the latter.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

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LURTON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE LURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This was an action under the Employers' Liability Act of April 22, 1908, to recover damages for the wrongful death of the intestate, an employee in the service of the railroad company. The constitutionality of the act was drawn in question by the plaintiff in error in the court below, and this afforded ground for bringing the case directly to this Court. Since the allowance of the writ of error all of the constitutional questions have been decided adversely to the plaintiff in error. Second Employers' Liability Cases, 223 U.S. 1. But this does not justify

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our dismissing the case, since the constitutional questions which gave the right to bring it here were not foreclosed when the writ was allowed, and we therefore have jurisdiction to consider other assignments of error.

These relate to the construction of the act and the measure of damages thereunder. Sections 1 and 2 of the Act of 1908, and § 2 of the amendatory Act of April 5, 1910, 36 Stat. 291, c. 143, are set out in the margin.1

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This case, however, involves only a construction of the act prior to the amendment referred to.

The decedent survived his injuries for several hours. His personal representative has brought this action not for the injury suffered by his intestate, but for the loss suffered by his widow as a consequence of his wrongful death.

For the railroad company, it has been argued that the fact that the injured employee survived his injuries for several hours operates to extinguish its liability for both the wrongful injury and the death which ensued. The view of counsel seems to be that the act declared a single liability and constituted a cause of action in behalf of the injured person if he survived, or, in case his death was instantaneous, a cause of action for the benefit of the specified dependent relatives surviving. This is a narrow interpretation of the act, and would operate to defeat all liability unless the injured person should survive long enough to conduct his action to a recovery.

We think the act declares two distinct and independent liabilities, resting, of course, upon the common foundation of a [33 S.Ct. 194] wrongful injury, but based upon altogether different principles. It plainly declares the liability of the carrier to its injured servant. If he had survived, he might have recovered such damages as would have compensated him for his expense, loss of time, suffering, and diminished earning power. But if he does not live to recover upon his own cause of action, what then? Does any right of action survive his death and pass to his representative? This is a question which depends upon the statute.

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We may not piece out this act of Congress by resorting to the local statutes of the state of procedure or that of the injury. The act is one which relates to the liability of railroad companies engaged in interstate commerce to their employees while engaged in such commerce. The power of Congress to deal with the subject comes from its power to regulate commerce between the states.

Prior to this act, Congress had not deemed it expedient to legislate upon the subject, though its power was ample. "The subject," as observed by this Court in Second Employers' Liability Cases, 223 U.S. 1, 54, "is one which falls within the police power of the state in the absence of legislation by Congress." Nashville, C. & St.L. Ry. Co. v. Alabama, 128 U.S. 96, 99. By this act, Congress has undertaken to cover the subject of the liability of railroad companies to their employees injured while engaged in interstate commerce. This exertion of a power which is granted in express terms must supersede all legislation over the same subject by the states. Thus, in Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Hefley, 158 U.S. 98, 104, it was said, in reference to state legislation touching freight rates upon interstate freight which conflicted with the legislation of Congress upon the same subject, that:

Generally it may be said in respect to laws of this character that, though resting upon the police power of the state, they must yield whenever Congress, in the exercise of the powers granted to it, legislates upon the precise subject matter, for that power, like all other reserved powers of the states, is subordinate to those in terms conferred by the Constitution upon the nation.

No urgency for its use can authorize a state to exercise it in regard to a subject matter which has been confided exclusively to the discretion of Congress by the Constitution.

Henderson v. New York, 92 U.S. 259, 271.

Definitions of the police power must, however, be taken, subject to the condition that the state cannot, in its exercise,

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for any purpose whatever, encroach upon the powers of the general government, or rights granted or secured by the supreme law of the land.

New Orleans Gas Co. v. Louisiana Light Co., 115 U.S. 650, 661.

While it may be a police power in the sense that all provisions for the health, comfort, and security of the citizens are police regulations, and an exercise of the police power, it has been said more than once in this Court that, where such powers are so exercised as to come within the domain of federal authority as defined by the Constitution, the latter must prevail.

Morgan v. Louisiana, 118 U.S. 455, 464.

It therefore follows that, in respect of state legislation prescribing the liability of such carriers for injuries to their employees while engaged in interstate commerce, this act is paramount and exclusive, and must remain so until Congress shall again remit the subject to the reserved police power of the states. Reid v. Colorado, 187 U.S. 137, 146.

The statutes of many of the states expressly provide for the survival of the right of action which the injured person might have prosecuted if he had survived. But, unless this federal statute which declares the liability here asserted provides that the right of action shall survive the death of the injured employee, it does not pass to his representative, notwithstanding state legislation. The question of survival is not one of procedure, ...

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