Baltimore Co v. Groeger

Citation266 U.S. 521,69 L.Ed. 419,45 S.Ct. 169
Decision Date05 January 1925
Docket NumberNo. 113,113
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

266 U.S. 521
45 S.Ct. 169
69 L.Ed. 419



No. 113.
Argued Oct. 24, 1924.
Decided Jan. 5, 1925.

Page 522

Messrs. W. T. Kinder and S. H. Tolles, both of Cleveland, Ohio, for petitioner.

Mr. E. C. Chapman, of Cleveland, Ohio, for respondent.

Mr. Justice BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, administratrix of the estate of her deceased husband, John C. Groeger, brought this action against the petitioner in the District Court for the Northern

Page 523

District of Ohio, to recover damages for his death. He was a locomotive engineer, employed by the defendant, and at the time of his death, September 3, 1920, was operating a steam locomotive propelling an interstate train. He was killed by the explosion of the boiler. The action was brought under the federal Employers' Liability Act of April 22, 1908, 35 Stat. 65 (Comp. St. §§ 8657-8665), and the federal Boiler Inspection Act of February 17, 1911, § 2, 36 Stat. 913 (Comp. St. § 8631), amended by Act March 4, 1915, 38 Stat. 1192 (Comp. St. § 8639a).

The court submitted for decision of the jury two issues: Whether the explosion was caused in whole or in part by an unsafe and insufficient condition permitted by defendant in and about the crown sheet of the boiler; and whether defendant's failure to have a fusible plug in the crown sheet violated section 2 of the Boiler Inspection Act. There was a verdict and judgment for plaintiff. Defendant took the case to the Circuit Court of Appeals, where the judgment was affirmed. 288 F. 321.

1. Defendant asserts that section 2 of the Boiler Inspection Act prescribes no definite or ascertainable standard of duty. That section provides that it shall be unlawful 'for any common carrier * * * to use any locomotive engine propelled by steam power * * * unless the boiler * * * and appurtenances thereof are in proper condition and safe to operate in the service to which the same is put, that the same may be employed in the active service of such carrier in moving traffic without unnecessary peril to life or limb. * * *' It imposes upon the carrier a higher degree of duty than theretofore existed. The requirement of the statute is substituted for the common-law rule which holds the employer to ordinary care to provide his employees a reasonably safe place in which, and reasonably safe appliances and machinery with which, to work. It is as definite and certain as is the common-law rule, and to hold that the duty imposed cannot be ascertained would be as unreasonable as it

Page 524

would be to declare that the common-law rule which is ordinarily applied in personal injury actions brought by employees against employers is too indefinite to be enforced or complied with. The contention is without merit.

2. Defendant insists that there was no evidence to support a finding that the explosion resulted from any defective or dangerous condition of the crown sheet.

The credibility of witnesses, the weight and probative value of evidence are to be determined by the jury and not by the judge. However, many decisions of this court1 establish that, in every case, it is the duty of the judge to direct a verdict in favor of one of the parties when the testimony and all the inferences which the jury could justifiably draw therefrom would be insufficient to support a different finding.

Page 525

The parts of the fire box and boiler involved may be described briefly. One side of the metal forming the top and sides of the fire box is exposed to the fire, and the other side forms a part of the boiler and, when the engine is in use, is covered by water. In order to strengthen and to hold in proper position the sides and top of the fire box in relation to the opposite exterior walls of the boiler, staybolts are used, extending from the inside of the fire box to the outside of the boiler. There were 1,464 such bolts on the engine under consideration. The top of the fire box is called the crown sheet. It is kept covered with water while the engine is in operation, and if allowed to be without water thereon, it will become so overheated that damage or explosion will be liable to result. Fusible plugs are made of soft metal, which will melt at relatively low temperature. They may be, and sometimes are, inserted into and used as part of the crown sheet, and are so shaped and placed that the end of the plug inside the boiler extends slightly above the surface of the metal surrounding it. It is intended that, if the water on the crown sheet shall be too low, the fire will melt out the plug before greater damage or explosion results, and allow the steam to escape from the boiler into the fire box and so relieve the pressure and check or extinguish the fire.

Rule 25, approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission, is as follows:

'No boiler shall be allowed to remain in service when there are two adjacent staybolts broken or plugged in any part of the fire box or combustion chamber, nor when three or more are broken or plugged in a circle four feet in diameter, nor when five or more are broken or plugged in the entire boiler.'

Rule 14 of the Commission is as follows:

'If boilers are equipped with fusible plugs, they shall be removed and cleaned of scale at least once every month. Their removal must be noted on the report of inspection.'

This does not

Page 526

purport to require fusible plugs to be used. There was none in the crown sheet in question. It was shown that the boiler had seven broken staybolts, and that they had been broken some time before the day the explosion occurred. Three were intermediate on one side within a radius of 16 inches; three, two of which were adjacent, were intermediate on the other side within a radius of 12 inches, and one was at the front end of the crown sheet. Use of the boiler in that condition violated rule 25. The evidence showed that overheating of the crown sheet has a tendency to injure and fracture staybolts; but it was not shown what caused these to break. All persons on the engine—engineer, fireman, and brakeman were killed. The train stopped at Foster's Tower, about 3 miles from the place of the explosion, and there water was taken into the tank. A brakeman employed on another train, then at that station, testified that he went into the cab of Groeger's engine, and that, while there, he observed that water and steam were escaping from the boiler into the fire box; that he heard the sizzling of the water upon the fire; that, when he opened the fire box door, steam gushed out; that the fire was dead; that the steam gauge showed 160 pounds pressure, and that water was being put into the boiler by the two injectors. There was no evidence that, prior to the day of the explosion, there was any improper or unsafe condition or defect in the boiler, other than the broken staybolts. The testimony of the locomotive engineers, who operated the engine several days immediately preceding the explosion, was to the effect that the injectors, gauge cocks, and water glass—the means by which the supply of water in the boiler was controlled and observed—were in good condition. The testimony of a number of witnesses, whose experience qualified them to give opinion evidence on the basis of conditions existing after the explosion, supported the defendant's contention that the

Page 527

broken staybolts did not cause or have any connection with the explosion, and, as to that matter, there was no substantial conflict in the evidence. The location of these broken staybolts in relation to the place of the tear or rupture was shown to be such that the explosion was not caused by them. And we find no evidence in the record to support a finding that they caused or contributed to cause the explosion.

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