338 U.S. 294 (1949), 43, Brown v. Western Railway of Alabama

Docket Nº:No. 43
Citation:338 U.S. 294, 70 S.Ct. 105, 94 L.Ed. 100
Party Name:Brown v. Western Railway of Alabama
Case Date:November 21, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 294

338 U.S. 294 (1949)

70 S.Ct. 105, 94 L.Ed. 100

Brown

v.

Western Railway of Alabama

No. 43

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 21, 1949

Argued October 19, 1949

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF GEORGIA

Syllabus

In an action in a state court for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, the trial court sustained a general demurrer to the complaint and dismissed the action. Under the state law, such a dismissal was a final adjudication barring recovery in any future state proceeding. The State Court of Appeals affirmed on the basis of a state rule of practice to construe pleadings "most strongly against the pleader."

Held:

1. The construction of the complaint by the state court in accordance with state practice is not binding on this Court, which will itself construe the allegations of the complaint in order to determine whether petitioner has been denied a right of trial granted him by Congress. Pp. 295-296.

2. The complaint did set forth a cause of action, and should not have been dismissed. Pp. 297-299.

77 Ga.App. 780, 49 S.E.2d 833, reversed.

A state court sustained a general demurrer to a complaint claiming damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, and dismissed the action. The Court of Appeals of Georgia affirmed. 77 Ga.App. 780, 49 S.E.2d 833. The Supreme Court of Georgia denied certiorari. This Court granted certiorari. 336 U.S. 965. Reversed and remanded, p. 299.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

[70 S.Ct. 106] MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner brought this action in a Georgia state court claiming damages from the respondent railroad under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq.

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Respondent filed a general demurrer to the complaint on the ground that it failed to "set forth a cause of action, and is otherwise insufficient in law." The trial court sustained the demurrer and dismissed the cause of action. The Court of Appeals affirmed, 77 Ga.App. 780, 49 S.E.2d 833, and the Supreme Court of Georgia denied certiorari. It is agreed that, under Georgia law, the dismissal is a final adjudication barring recovery in any future state proceeding. The petition for certiorari here presented the question of whether the complaint did set forth a cause of action sufficient to survive a general demurrer resulting in final dismissal. Certiorari was granted, 336 U.S. 965, because the implications of the dismissal were considered important to a correct and uniform application of the federal act in the state and federal courts. See Brady v. Southern R. Co., 320 U.S. 476.

First. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that,

Stripped of its details, the petition shows that the plaintiff was injured while in the performance of his duties when he stepped on a large clinker lying alongside the track in the railroad yards. . . . The mere presence of a large clinker in a railroad yard cannot be said to constitute an act of negligence. . . . Insofar as the allegations of the petition show, the sole cause of the accident was the act of the plaintiff in stepping on this large clinker, which he was able to see and could have avoided.

The court reached the foregoing conclusions by following a Georgia rule of practice to construe pleading allegations "most strongly against the pleader." Following this local rule of construction, the court said that,

In the absence of allegations to the contrary, the inference arises that [the plaintiff's] vision was unobscured, and that he could have seen and avoided the clinker.

77 Ga.App. 783, 49 S.E.2d 835. Under the same local rule, the court found no precise allegation that the particular clinker on which petitioner

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stumbled was beside the tracks due to respondent's negligence.

It is contended that this construction of the complaint is binding on us. The argument is that, while state courts are without power to detract from "substantive rights" granted by Congress in FELA cases, they are free to follow their own rules of "practice" and "procedure." To what extent rules of practice and procedure may themselves dig into "substantive rights" is a troublesome question at best, as is shown in the very case on which respondent relies. Central Vermont R. Co. v. White, 238 U.S. 507. Other cases in this Court1 point up the impossibility of laying down a precise rule to distinguish "substance" from "procedure." Fortunately, we need not attempt to do so. A long series of cases previously decided, from which we see no reason to depart, makes it our duty to construe the allegations of this complaint ourselves in order to determine whether petitioner has been denied a right of trial granted him by Congress. This federal right cannot be defeated by the forms of local practice. See [70 S.Ct. 107] American Ry. Exp. Co. v. Levee, 263 U.S. 19, 21. And we cannot accept as final a state court's interpretation of allegations in a complaint asserting it. First National Bank of Guthrie Center v. Anderson, 269 U.S. 341, 346; Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22, 24; Covington & L. Turnpike Road Co. v. Sandford, 164 U.S. 578, 595-596. This rule applies to FELA cases no less than to other types. Reynolds v. Atlantic C.L. R. Co., 336 U.S. 207; Anderson v. Atchison, T. &

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S.F. Ry. Co., 333 U.S. 821; cf. Lillie v. Thompson, 332 U.S. 459.

Second. We hold that the allegations of the complaint do set forth a cause of action which should not have been dismissed. It charged that respondent had allowed "clinkers" and other debris "to collect in said yards along the side of the tracks;" that such debris made the "yards unsafe;" that respondent thus failed to supply him a reasonably safe place to work, but directed him to work in said yards "under the conditions above described;" that it was necessary for petitioner "to cross over all such material and debris;" that, in performing his duties, he "ran around" an engine and "stepped on a large clinker lying beside the tracks as aforesaid, which caused petitioner to fall and be injured;" that petitioner's injuries were

directly and proximately caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the defendant . . . (a) In failing to furnish plaintiff with a reasonably safe place to work as herein alleged. (b) In leaving clinkers . . . and other debris along the side of track in its yards as aforesaid, well knowing that said yards in such condition were dangerous for use by brakemen working therein, and that petitioner would have to perform his duties with said yards in such condition.

Other allegations need not be set out, since the foregoing, if proven, would show an injury of the precise kind for which Congress has provided a recovery. These allegations, fairly construed, are much more than a charge that petitioner "stepped on a large clinker lying alongside the track in the railroad yards." They also charge that the railroad permitted clinkers and other debris to be left along the tracks, "well knowing" that this was dangerous to workers; that petitioner was compelled to "cross over" the clinkers and debris; that, in doing so, he fell and was injured, and that all of this was in violation of the railroad's

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duty to furnish petitioner a reasonably safe place to work. Certainly these allegations are sufficient to permit introduction of evidence from which a jury might infer that petitioner's injuries were due to the railroad's negligence in failing to supply a reasonably safe place to work. Bailey v. Central Vermont Ry. Inc., 319 U.S. 350, 353. And we have already refused to set aside a judgment coming from the Georgia courts where the jury was permitted to infer negligence from the presence of clinkers along the tracks in the railroad yard. Southern Ry. Co. v. Puckett, 244 U.S. 571, 574, aff'g 16 Ga.App. 551, 554, 85 S.E. 809, 811.

Here, the Georgia court has decided as a matter of law that no inference of railroad negligence could be drawn from the facts alleged in this case. Rather, the court itself has drawn from the pleadings the reverse inference that the sole proximate cause of petitioner's injury was his own negligence. Throughout its opinion, the appellate court clearly reveals a preoccupation with what it deemed to be petitioner's failure to take proper precautions.2 But, as that court necessarily admits, contributory negligence does not preclude recovery under the...

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