338 U.S. 384 (1949), 56, O'Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co.

Docket Nº:No. 56
Citation:338 U.S. 384, 70 S.Ct. 200, 94 L.Ed. 187
Party Name:O'Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co.
Case Date:December 12, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 384

338 U.S. 384 (1949)

70 S.Ct. 200, 94 L.Ed. 187

O'Donnell

v.

Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co.

No. 56

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 12, 1949

Argued October 21, 1949

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act to recover damages for a death claimed to have been proximately caused by the breaking of an automatic coupler, the complaint mingled in a single cause of action charges of general negligence and a specific charge that defendant "carelessly and negligently" violated the Safety Appliance Act by operating a car not equipped with the prescribed coupler. The trial court denied plaintiff's request for instructions that the breaking of the coupler was negligence per se, and submitted the whole case to the jury indiscriminately as a negligence case. The jury found for defendant.

Held: as to the claim based on the Safety Appliance Act, plaintiff was entitled to a peremptory instruction that to equip a car with a coupler which broke in a switching operation was a violation of the Act, which rendered defendant liable for injuries proximately resulting therefrom, and that neither evidence of negligence nor of diligence and care was to be considered on the question of this liability. Pp.385-394.

(a) The Safety Appliance Act requires couplers which, after a secure coupling is effected, will remain coupled until set free by some purposeful act of control. Pp. 387-389.

(b) A failure of equipment to perform as required by the Safety Appliance Act is, in itself, an actionable wrong, in no way dependent upon negligence and for the proximate results of which there is liability that cannot be escaped by proof of care or diligence. Pp. 389-392.

(c) Pleadings will serve their purpose of sharpening and limiting the issues only if claims based on negligence are set forth separately from those based on violation of the Safety Appliance Act. P. 392.

(d) Even though no objection be made to an improper pleading in a case such as this, it is almost indispensable to an intelligible charge to the jury that a clear separation between claims based on negligence and those based on violation of the Safety Appliance Act be observed and impressed. P. 393.

Page 385

(e) Evidence pertinent to negligence is immaterial to issues raised by a claim based on violation of the Safety Appliance Act. Pp. 393-394.

171 F.2d 973 reversed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment for the defendant in an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. 171 F.2d 973. This Court granted certiorari. 337 U.S. 929. Reversed, p. 394.

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60. The complaint mingled in a single count or cause of action charges of general negligence and a specific charge that defendant "carelessly and negligently" violated the Safety Appliance Act, 45 U.S.C. § 2, by operating a car not equipped with the prescribed coupler. The jury found against plaintiff, and judgment for defendant was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. 171 F.2d 973. This result must stand if the jury was properly instructed, as to which the Court of Appeals divided.

O'Donnell, whose administratrix is petitioner here and was plaintiff below, met an unwitnessed death while working in defendant's yards as a member of its switching crew. When last seen, he was going to adjust the couplers on certain cars which previously had failed to couple by impact. Shortly after his departure, as the result of the breaking of a coupler, two cars broke loose from a cut of cars that was being moved in a switching

Page 386

operation. Running free, they collided with other standing cars and drove them against those whose couplers decedent had said he was going to adjust. Some time later, decedent's mangled body was found lying across one rail of the track on which the cars he had intended to prepare for coupling had stood. That he had gone between them to adjust the couplers is suggested by the fact that they coupled upon impact with the colliding cars, though they previously had failed so to do. Petitioner's contention, from all the circumstances proved, is that O'Donnell's death was proximately caused by the breaking of the coupler, which permitted the two cars to run free, strike the standing cars, and cause unexpected movement of the cars between which O'Donnell was engaged. Respondent contends that they indicate, instead, that death resulted from a later and independent movement on the track when the runaway cars were hauled out -- an event which took place before discovery of decedent's body but after the collision of the two sets of cars. We need not resolve the conflict between these competing theories of causation, for that decision was for the jury. Ellis v. Union Pacific R. Co., 329 U.S. 649, 653.

Our concern is with the effect accorded by the trial court's instructions to the breaking of the coupler. The issue was defined by the Court of Appeals:

The record is devoid of any request by plaintiff that the jury be instructed that they might infer negligence from the breaking of the coupler, but, in the District Court, plaintiff contended for and tendered instructions upon the theory that a breaking of the coupler in and of itself was negligence per se. The court refused to so instruct.

171 F.2d at 976. The Court of Appeals, with one dissent, sustained this refusal so to charge, saying,

We do not believe the Act required defendant to furnish couplers that would not break. We think the true rule is that, where a coupler

Page 387

does break, the jury may, if they think it reasonable under all the circumstances, infer that the coupler was defective and was furnished and used in violation of the Act. The cases go no further than to hold that from the breaking of a coupler the jury may infer negligence.

As this view of the Safety Appliance Act appears to conflict with the rule laid down in other jurisdictions,1 we granted certiorari. 337 U.S. 929.

A close and literal reading of the Safety Appliance Act, 45 U.S.C. § 2,2 suggests that two functions only are required of couplers: that they couple automatically by impact and that they uncouple without requiring men to go between the ends of the cars. This construction finds some support in the decisions. See, e.g., St. Louis & San Francisco R. Co. v. Conarty, 238 U.S. 243, 250; Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. United States, 220 U.S. 559, 571; Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Layton, 243 U.S. 617; Johnson v. Southern Pacific Co., 196 U.S. 1, 18. See also United States v. Southern R. Co., 135 F. 122, 127 (1905); Chesapeake & Ohio R. Co. v. Charlton, 247 F. 34, 40 (1917); Chicago, M.,

Page 388

St. P. & P. R. Co. v. Linehan, 66 F.2d 373, 377 (1933); Penn v. Chicago & N.W. R. Co., 163 F.2d 995, 997 (1947).

Courts at other times have held, however, that failure of couplers to remain coupled until released constitutes or evidences a violation of the Act, just as does their failure to couple upon impact or uncouple from the sides of cars. As stated by the Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, the Act "is also aimed at insuring couplers that will hold together." Keenan v. Director General of Railroads, 285 F. 286, 290 (1922); Philadelphia & R. R. Co. v. Eisenhart, 280 F. 271 (1922); Erie R. Co. v. Caldwell, 264 F. 947 (1920); Southern Pacific Co. v. Thomas, 21 Ariz. 355, 188 P. 268; Kowalski v. Chicago, N.W. R. Co., 159 Minn. 388, 199 N.W. 178; McAllister v. St. Louis Merchants' Bridge Terminal R. Co., 324 Mo. 1005, 25 S.W.2d 791; Saxton v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 256 N.Y. 363, 176 N.E. 425; Stewart v. Wabash R. Co., 105 Neb. 812, 182 N.W. 496. And see Reetz v. Chicago & E. R. Co., 46 F.2d 50 (1931). This appears also to have been the view of this Court in the only case of this nature ever before it. Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Gotschall, 244 U.S. 66. See also Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie R. Co. v. Goneau, 269 U.S. 406.

It is hard to think of a coupler defect in which greater danger inheres to workmen, travelers, and all to whom the railroad owes a duty than one which sets cars running uncontrolled upon its tracks. We find it difficult to read the Safety Appliance Act to require that cars be equipped with appliances which couple automatically by impact and which may be released without going between the ends of cars, but which need not remain coupled in the meantime. The Act, so construed, would guard against dangers incident to effecting an engagement or

Page 389

disengagement while ignoring the even greater hazards which can result from the failure of a coupling to perform its main function, which is to stay coupled until released.

We hold that the Safety Appliance Act requires couplers which, after a secure coupling is effected, will remain coupled until set free by some purposeful act of control.

What, then, should a jury be instructed is the consequence of a failure to provide couplers that so perform? Should the jury be instructed that it must [70 S.Ct. 204] find liability, or merely that it may find liability for injuries proximately resulting from the failure?

The arguments and instructions in this case, as well as others, and the language of many opinions and texts, reflect widespread confusion as to the effect to be accorded a violation of the federal safety appliance statute.3 Part of this confusion is traceable to the diversity of judicial opinion concerning the consequences attributed in negligence actions to the violation of a statute.4

Page 390

Breach of certain statutes in various jurisdictions will be regarded as some evidence of negligence, to be weighed by the jury along with the facts. Hayes v. Michigan Central R. Co., 111 U.S. 228, 240; Union Pacific R. Co. v. McDonald, 152 U.S. 262, 283. At other times or...

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