Central Vermont Railway Company v. Mary Theresa White

Decision Date21 June 1915
Docket NumberNo. 407,407
PartiesCENTRAL VERMONT RAILWAY COMPANY, Plff. in Err., v. MARY THERESA WHITE, Administratrix of the Estate of Enoch L. White
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. J. W. Redmond for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Warren R. Austin for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice Lamar delivered the opinion of the court:

1. On January 12, 1912, Enoch L. White was killed in a rear end collision while employed as brakeman on the Vermont Central, an interstate railway. His administratrix sued the company, in a Vermont court, for 'the benefit of the widow and next of kin, minor children.' The jury returned a verdict for $7,168. The judgment thereon was affirmed by the supreme court of the state (87 Vt. 330, 89 Atl. 618), and the case was brought here on a record containing so many assignments, covering 18 printed pages, as to make it proper to repeat the ruling in Phillips & C. Constr. Co. v. Seymour, 91 U. S. 648, 23 L. ed. 342, that the 'practice of filing a large number of assignments cannot be approved. It perverts the purpose sought to be subserved by the rule requiring any assignments.' 'It points to nothing and thwarts the purpose of the rule' (Chicago G. W. R. Co. v. McDonough, 88 C. C. A. 517, 161 Fed. 659), which was intended to present to the court a clear and concise statement of material points on which the plaintiff in error intends to rely. Some of the assignments in the present case relate to matters of pleading; others to the admissibility of evidence, to the sufficiency of exceptions, and to various rulings of the trial court which involve no construction of the employers' liability act, and which, therefore, cannot be considered on writ of error from a state court. Seaboard Air Line R. Co. v. Duvall, 225 U. S. 477, 486, 56 L. ed. 1171, 1175, 32 Sup. Ct. Rep. 790.

2. We shall therefore only consider those assignments, discussed in the brief, which raise a Federal question. Among them is the contention that the court failed to direct a verdict for the defendant because the proof failed to show negligence of the company, or to prove the facts necessary to establish liability under the Federal law. Southern P. Co. v. Schuyler, 227 U. S. 601, 57 L. ed. 662, 43 L.R.A.(N.S.) 901, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 277; North Carolina R. Co. v. Zachary, 232 U. S. 248, 58 L. ed. 591, 34 Sup. Ct. Rep. 305, Ann. Cas. 1914C, 159.

The evidence showed that on the night of January 1st, 1912, Enoch L. White was employed by the Central Vermont Railway Company as brakeman on extra freight train No. 401. It had passed several miles north of Bethel, Vermont, and was proceeding up grade at a low rate of speed. White and the other employees thereon had no notice that it was followed by a faster freight train (No. 708), which, at Bethel, had received a 'clearance card' indicating that the track ahead was clear and that it might proceed. The engine, pulling train No. 708, had a leaking cylinder, from which steam escaped in such quantities as to make it impossible for the engineer to see the tail lights of the train on which White was employed. The result was that the faster train (708) ran into the slower train (401) and in the collision White was killed. The evidence was amply sufficient to sustain a finding that the death of White was due to the fault of the agents of the railway company.

3. Complaint is made because the court failed to instruct the jury as to the law respecting the assumption of risks. But there was not only no request to charge on that subject, but there is no evidence that White knew of the negligence of the agent in giving a 'clearance card' or of the leaking cylinder which obscured the vision of the engineer. He did not assume the risk arising from unknown defects in engines, machinery, or appliances, while the statute abolishes the fellow-servant rule. 35 Stat. at L. 65, chap. 149, § 2, Comp. Stat. 1913, § 8658. Under the facts there was, therefore, no error in failing to charge the jury on the subject of assumption of risks. Southern R. Co. v. Gadd, 233 U. S. 572, 58 L. ed. 1099, 34 Sup. Ct. Rep. 696; Gila Valley, G. & N. R. Co. v. Hall, 232 U. S. 102, 58 L. ed. 524, 34 Sup. Ct. Rep. 229; Seaboard Air Line R. Co. v. Horton, 233 U. S. 492, 504, 58 L. ed. 1062, 1070, L.R.A.1915C, 1, 34 Sup. Ct. Rep. 635.

4. The defendant, however, insisted that White knew his train was behind time and running at a low rate of speed. The company contended that, in view of these circumstances, it was his duty, under the rules, to put out lighted fuses and torpedoes in order to give warning of the presence of train No. 401 on the track. On that theory the company asked the court to charge that the burden was on the administratrix to show that White was not guilty of contributory negligence. In considering that exception the supreme court of Vermont held that the defendant's contention was based on a correct statement of the state rule, but said: 'This case, however, is brought upon an act of Congress . . . [which] supersedes the laws of the state in so far as the latter cover the same field. . . . Consequently the question of the burden of proof respect- ing contributory negligence on the part of the injured employee is to be determined according to the provisions of that act,' citing Seaboard Air Line R. Co. v. Moore, 113 C. C. A. 668, 193 Fed. 1022, s. c. 228 U. S. 434, 57 L. ed. 907, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 580.

In this court the argument was devoted principally to a discussion of this ruling—counsel for the railroad company earnestly insisting that 'the lex fori must determine all questions of evidence, including that of the burden of proof. Whart. Confl. L. 3d ed. § 478b.' It was argued that there is nothing in the Federal statute indicating an intent to change the state rule as to the burden of proof, and it is claimed that because of the court's mistaken construction of the Federal act the railway company has been deprived of a right to which it was entitled under the laws of Vermont.

There can, of course, be no doubt of the general principle that matters respecting the remedy—such as the form of the action, sufficiency of the pleadings, rules of evidence, and the statute of limitations—depend upon the law of the place where the suit is brought (M'Niel v. Holbrook, 12 Pet. 89, 9 L. ed. 1011). But matters of substance and procedure must not be confounded because they happen to have the same name. For example, the time within which a suit is to be brought is treated as pertaining to the remedy. But this is not so if, by the statute giving the cause of action, the lapse of time not only bars the remedy, but destroys the liability. A. J. Phillips Co. v. Grand Trunk Western R. Co. 236 U. S. 662, 59 L. ed. ——, 35 Sup. Ct. Rep. 444; Boyd v. Clark, 8 Fed. 849; Hallowell v. Harwich, 14 Mass. 188; Cooper v. Lyons, 9 Lea, 597 (2); Newcomb v. The Clermont No. 2, 3 G. Greene, 295. In that class of cases the law of the jurisdiction, creating the cause of action and fixing the time within which it must be asserted, would control even where the suit was brought in the courts of a state which gave a longer period within which to sue. So, too, as to the burden of proof. As long as the question involves a mere matter of procedure as to the time when and the order in which evidence should be submitted the state court can, in those and similar instances, follow their own practice even in the trial of suits arising under the Federal law.

But it is a misnomer to say that the question as to the burden of proof as to contributory negligence is a mere matter of state procedure. For, in Vermont, and in a few other states, proof of plaintiff's freedom from fault is a part of the very substance of his case. He must not only satisfy the jury (1) that he was injured by the negligence of the defendant, but he must go further, and, as a condition of his right to recover, must also show (2) that he was not guilty of contributory negligence. In those states the plaintiff is as much under the necessity of proving one of these facts as the other; and as to neither can it be said that the burden is imposed by a rule of procedure, since it arises out of the general obligation imposed upon every plaintiff, to establish all of the facts necessary to make out his cause of action. But the United States courts have uniformly held that, as a matter of general law, the burden of proving contributory negligence is on the defendant. The Federal courts have enforced that principle even in trials in states which hold that the burden is on the plaintiff. Washington & G. R. Co. v. Gladmon, 15 Wall. 401(1), 407, 408, 21 L. ed. 114-116; Hough v. Texas & P. R. Co. 100 U. S. 225, 25 L. ed. 617; Inland & Seaboard Coasting Co. v. Tolson, 139 U. S. 551 (4), 557, 35 L. ed. 270, 272, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 653; Washington & G. R. Co. v. Harmon (...

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