338 U.S. 430 (1949), 23, Carter v. Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay Railway Co.

Docket Nº:No. 23
Citation:338 U.S. 430, 70 S.Ct. 226, 94 L.Ed. 236
Party Name:Carter v. Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay Railway Co.
Case Date:December 19, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 430

338 U.S. 430 (1949)

70 S.Ct. 226, 94 L.Ed. 236



Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay Railway Co.

No. 23

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 19, 1949

Argued October 14, 1949




In this action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act and the Safety Appliance Act, based upon a charge of negligence and a charge of a violation of the Safety Appliance Act through the failure of an automatic coupler, held:

1. It was error to take from the jury the phase of the case involving the alleged violation of the Safety Appliance Act, since there was evidence upon which a jury could find a causal relation between the failure of the coupler and the plaintiff's injury. Pp. 433-435.

(a) The duty imposed on an interstate railroad by the Safety Appliance Act to equip cars "with couplers coupling automatically by impact" is an absolute duty unrelated to negligence, and the absence of a "defect" cannot aid the railroad if the coupler was properly set and failed to couple. Pp. 433-434.

(b) The fact that the coupler functioned properly on other occasions is immaterial. P. 434.

(c) Once a violation of the Safety Appliance Act is established, only causal relation is in issue, since violation of that Act supplies the wrongful act necessary to ground liability under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, regardless of negligence. P. 434.

(d) If the jury determines that defendant's violation of the Safety Appliance Act is "a contributory proximate cause" of the injury, it may find for plaintiff. P. 435.

2. In an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act based on general negligence, contributory negligence does not bar recovery, but affects only the amount of damages recoverable, and the trial court's instructions to the jury on this issue in this case were erroneous and were prejudicial to the plaintiff. Pp. 435-437.

170 F.2d 719, reversed.

In an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, there was a verdict against plaintiff upon which the Federal District Court entered judgment for defendant. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 170 F.2d 719. This Court granted certiorari. 336 U.S. 935. Reversed, p. 437.

Page 431

CLARK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Safety Appliance Acts require railroad cars used in interstate commerce to be equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact.1 This case brings before us for review another action for damages by a railroad employee under the Safety Appliance Acts and the Federal Employers' Liability Act.2 The trial court instructed the jury that there could be no liability based on any "defect" in the "automatic [70 S.Ct. 228] coupling system," but submitted the case on issues of negligence. There was a verdict against the plaintiff upon which judgment for the railroad was entered. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 170 F.2d 719. We granted certiorari because of the confusion which has developed in the application of the two statutes. 336 U.S. 935. Our duty to review certain cases of this nature is settled. Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U.S. 53 (1949); Keeton v. Thompson, 326 U.S. 689 (1945); Ellis v. Union Pacific R. Co., 329 U.S. 649 (1947).

On February 2, 1946, the petitioner was injured while acting as "swing man" of a switching crew on the respondent railroad. The crew of five men were engaged at night in switching operations at and near the International Paper Company plant in Panama City, Florida.

Page 432

The conductor of the crew had laid out a plan for coupling together a number of cars, some of which were on storage tracks and one on the main line. The ultimate objective was to switch some wood rack cars loaded with pulpwood into the wood yard of the paper concern. In the conductor's absence, petitioner was in charge of the switching operations, and attempted to carry out the instructions given him.

The engine, after coupling in front of it a box car followed by eight flat cars, was engaged in backing the train of cars onto the main line in order to couple at the end of the train a Louisville & Nashville Railroad wood rack car loaded with pulpwood. The petitioner had previously set the brake, and had opened both lips of the coupler on the L. & N. car preparatory to attaching the car to the train. He had given the footboard man the slow signal ahead for coupling, which had been passed on to the engineer. The engineer brought the train forward and hit the L. & N. car in the usual manner necessary for coupling, but, instead of coupling to the train, the L. & N. car started rolling down the tracks, which were at this point on a downgrade.

Petitioner saw that the L. & N. car had not coupled, and ran after it for some fifty or sixty feet, climbed to the bulkhead where the brake wheel was located, and applied the hand brake to stop the car. He was able to bring the car to a stop only after it had left the main line and traveled around a curve for some six car lengths. Looking up, he saw the train moving toward him about twenty feet away at a speed which conflicting testimony places at a maximum of fifteen miles per hour to a minimum of two miles per hour. Petitioner grabbed the brake wheel to brace himself, but the train hit the L. & N. car so violently that it threw the petitioner about six feet down into its hold. This time, the coupling was successful, and, as the L. & N. car jerked from the impact, some

Page 433

of the pulpwood loaded in the car was pitched forward on the petitioner, causing the alleged injuries.

The engineer testified that he did not know whether the L. & N. car had safely coupled at the first impact. He contended that, after this impact, he received the come-ahead signal from the petitioner, whereupon he moved the train forward at about six miles per hour. The testimony was in sharp conflict with reference to this signal, as well as to other details of the incident.

Defendant moved for a directed verdict as to the failure to couple on the ground that, while the coupler failed to couple on the initial impact,

it worked previously and worked subsequently, and the proof shows no defect in it, and, under the finding in Western & Atlantic Railroad v. Gentle, 198 S.E. 257, that this rule of law is laid down . . . that the failure of couplers to couple automatically by impact is not per se a violation of this Act. . . .

The District Court granted the motion, instructing the jury

that there is no evidence in this case . . . from which you could properly find there was defect in this . . . automatic coupling system on that car.

The Court of Appeals affirmed on another theory: that the failure to [70 S.Ct. 229] couple on the first impact "was the remote, not the proximate, cause of plaintiff's injuries."

The trial court did submit the cause on the more general negligence allegations, and on these a verdict was returned for the respondent. But petitioner objects to those portions of the trial court's charge covering contributory negligence. The Court of Appeals admitted that, standing alone, the charge "might possibly have been prejudicial," but stated that, here, it was "inconsequential."

In these conclusions, the court below was in error.

First. Since 1893, the Congress has made it unlawful for a railroad company such as respondent to use any car on its line "not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact." This Court has repeatedly attempted

Page 434

to make clear that this is an absolute duty not based upon negligence, and that the absence of a "defect" cannot aid the railroad if the coupler was properly set3 and failed to couple on the occasion in question. See O'Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 384, 390 (1949), and cases cited. The fact that the coupler functioned properly on other occasions is immaterial.

But respondent contends that, when the L. & N. car came to rest after the failure of the coupler, "its capacity for doing harm was spent." The second movement, it argues, in which the coupling worked perfectly, started a new chain of events resulting in Carter's injury.

We cannot agree that the various events were so divisible. This was a two-pronged complaint, alleging the right to recover under the Safety Appliance Act and the Federal Employers' Liability Act. In this situation, the test of causal relation stated in the Employers' Liability...

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