Brady v. Southern Ry Co

Decision Date20 December 1943
Docket NumberNo. 26,26
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. D. E. Hudgins and Welch Jordan, both of Greensboro, N.C., for petitioner.

Mr. Sidney S. Alderman, of Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case arose under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.1 Certiorari to the Supreme Court of North Carolina was sought and granted to consider the retroactivity of the last amendment to the Act in conjunction with the contention that there was error in the ruling which held the case improperly submitted to the jury by the trial court. 319 U.S. 777, 63 S.Ct. 1028. Our conclusion makes it unnecessary to consider the former problem.

The decedent, Earle A. Brady, was a brakeman. At the time of his death he was employed in that capacity in interstate commerce by the respondent, Southern Railway Company. The accident occurred during a switching movement in Virginia. The freight train upon which decedent was acting as brakeman came north over a main line and passed a switch which led into a storage track running south parallel to and on the east of the main line. There were four other members of the crew—the engineer, the fireman, the flagman and the conductor.

After the entire train passed the switch, it was stopped and backed into the storage track to permit another northbound train to go through on the main line and to pick up twelve cars at the south end of the storage track. After the other train passed, decedent's train, without picking up the storage track cars, pulled out on to the main line, backed southwardly beyond a vehicular grade cross- ing which passed over the main line and the storage track about one-eighth of a mile south of the switchpoints, left the caboose and all the cars except the four nearest the engine on the main line and returned north for the purpose of again backing into the storage track to pick up the storage track cars. After coupling these cars on to the four next to the engine, the intended movement was to pull out again on the main line, back the train southwardly to the cars left on the main line, couple up all the cars and proceed on the journey to the north.

As the engine and four cars backed slowly into the storage track, the decedent was riding the southeastern step of the rear car, a gondola. It was 6:30 A.M. on Christmas morning and so dark the work was carried on by lantern signals. The trucks hit the wrong end of a derailer, located three or four car lengths from the switch, which was closed so as to prevent cars on the storage track from drifting accidentally onto the main line.2 The contact derailed the cars and threw decedent to instant death under the wheels.

Damages were sought for the alleged negligence of the carrier in failing to furnish a reasonably safe place to work by reason of defects in the track and derailer and, we assume since it was submitted to the jury and passed upon by the Supreme Court of North Carolina, 222 N.C. 367, at page 370, 23 S.E.2d 334, at page 337, by the act of some other employee in improperly closing the derailer after the beginning and before the fatal phase of the switching movement. Further there was a charge of negligence in failing to provide a light or other warning to indicate the dangerous position of the derailer. A judgment for $20,000 was obtained in the Superior Court which was reversed in the state Supreme Court on the ground of the failure of the evidence to support the jury's verdict.

There is thus presented the problem of whether sufficient evidence of negligence is furnished by the record to justify the submission of the case to the jury. In Employers' Liability cases, this question must be determined by this Court finally. Through the supremacy clause of the Constitution, Art. VI, we are charged with assuring the act's authority in state courts. Only by a uniform federal rule as to the necessary amount of evidence may litigants under the federal act receive similar treatment in all states. Western & Atlantic R.R. v. Hughes, 278 U.S. 496, 498, 49 S.Ct. 231, 232, 73 L.Ed. 473; Chicago M. & St. P.R. Co. v. Coogan, 271 U.S. 472, 474, 46 S.Ct. 564, 565, 70 L.Ed. 1041. Cf. United Gas Public Service Co. v. Texas, 303 U.S. 123, 143, 625, 58 S.Ct. 483, 493, 82 L.Ed. 702. It is true that this Court has held that a state need not provide in F.E.L.A. cases any trial by jury according to the requirements of the Seventh Amendment. Minneapolis & St. L.R. Co. v. Bombolis, 241 U.S. 211, 36 S.Ct. 595, 60 L.Ed. 961, Ann.Cas. 1916E 505, L.R.A.1917A, 86. But when a state's jury system requires the court to determine the sufficiency of the evidence to support a finding of a federal right to recover, the correctness of its ruling is a federal question. The weight of the evidence under the Employers' Liability Act must be more than a scintilla before the case may be properly left to the discretion of the trier of fact—in this case, the jury. Western & Atlantic R.R. v. Hughes, supra; Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co. v. Groeger, 266 U.S. 521, 524, 45 S.Ct. 169, 170, 69 L.Ed. 419. Cf. Gunning v. Cooley, 281 U.S. 90, 94, 50 S.Ct. 231, 233, 74 L.Ed. 720; Commissioners v. Clark, 94 U.S. 278, 284, 24 L.Ed. 59. When the evidence is such that without weighing the credibility of the witnesses there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict, the court should determine the proceed- ing by non-suit, directed verdict or otherwise in accordance with the applicable practice without submission to the jury, or by judgment notwithstanding the verdict. By such direction of the trial the result is saved from the mischance of speculation over legally unfounded claims. Galloway v. United States, 319 U.S. 372, 63 S.Ct. 1077; Pence v. United States, 316 U.S. 332, 62 S.Ct. 1080, 86 L.Ed. 1510; Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Groeger, 266 U.S. 521, 45 S.Ct. 169, 69 L.Ed. 419, note 1; Anderson, Adm'x, v. Smith, 226 U.S. 439, 33 S.Ct. 176, 57 L.Ed. 289; Coughran v. Bigelow, 164 U.S. 301, 307, 17 S.Ct. 117, 119, 41 L.Ed. 442; Gunning v. Cooley, 281 U.S. 90, 93, 50 S.Ct. 231, 232, 74 L.Ed. 720, note; Seaboard Air Line Ry. v. Padgett, 236 U.S. 668, 673, 35 S.Ct. 481, 482, 59 L.Ed. 777; Parks v. Ross, 11 How. 362, 373, 13 L.Ed. 730. See IX Wigmore on Evidence, (3d ed., 1940), §§ 2494 et seq.

An examination of the proven facts to determine whether they are sufficient to permit a verdict by the jury for the decedent's estate based upon reason is of no doctrinal importance. Every case varies. However, the soundness of the judgment entered in the state Supreme Court depends upon an appraisal of the evidence and, as to this, there is a difference of opinion here. Our conclusion is that there is failure to show in the record any negligence of the carrier from not putting a light on the derailer or by the action of other employees than decedent in closing the derailer.

As to the light, it is nowhere shown that it was customary or even desirable in the operation of this or any other railroad to equip derailers with such a signal. Apparently lights on a derailer are not used on storage tracks where, as at the place of the accident, an automatic block system functions.

Nor do we find any evidence upon which a jury could find negligence of other employees of the carrier in setting the derailer without warning the decedent. On the first backward movement into the storage track, the engineer and fireman were in the engine cab at the front of the train. There is no evidence that either left that posi- tion until after the accident. As the entire train passed the derailer then without incident and again upon its exit from the storage track to return to the main line to cut the train, there is no suggestion that the derailer was not open during that part of the movement. As petitioner states, 'during switching operations it is the usual rule and custom for the derailer to be kept off the track until the switching operation is completed.' This time the switch was closed between the movement just referred to and the return of the engine and four cars to the storage track to pick up the cars waiting transportation.

The evidence shows without contrary intimation that on the first movement into the storage track the twelve cars to be picked up later were south of the crossing and therefore more than an eighth of a mile from the switch. 'When the cars or the train was backed into the pass track to let the northbound train pass, I (the conductor) threw the switch and the derailer and then came back to the crossing to await the other movement—to keep from hitting an automobile.' 'When that movement was made—when they backed out on the main line—I was at this crossing, protecting the crossing. In the backing up movement I protected the crossing and then they cut out the four cars. The engine came over the crossing; cut off somewhere five or six cars south of the crossing. I was not up north of the engine when they cut the cars out. I was back up here. I rode the caboose car back. When they came on down I stayed on the caboose car and Mr. Brady stayed where the four or five cars were. He cut those out. I didn't see him. I was checking on those cars. I had left the caboose. I was not far from those twelve cars so I left the caboose to check up on the cars. While I was over there I heard the blast of the locomotive engine. I didn't see how the cars were derailed—left the track—nor did I see where Mr. Brady was at that time.' Obviously the conductor, in order to get near the twelve stored cars hopped the caboose at the crossing as it backed up on the main line. The flagman testified that the conductor came back and watched the crossing after the train first backed into the storage track. The flagman also testified that on leaving the caboose after the second train passed he, the flagman, went south to check up on the twelve stored cars and never touched either the switch or...

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