Chicago, Milwaukee St Paul Railroad Company v. State of Wisconsin

Decision Date21 June 1915
Docket NumberNo. 177,177
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

In 1911 the state of Wisconsin passed a statute imposing a penalty upon sleeping car companies if, the lower berth being occupied, the upper berth was let down before it was actually engaged. Suit was brought against the plaintiff in error for the recovery of the statutory penalty, based on the fact that on the night of August 11, 1911, James T. Hall boarded the company's sleeping car at Portage, Wisconsin. He engaged lower berth, section 11, and occupied the same, as an intrastate passenger, between Portage, Wisconsin, and Star Lake, Wisconsin. The upper berth of No. 11 was not engaged or occupied, but was let down and kept down during the night by the porter.

The company answered that its cars, like those of others in the United States, were so arranged as to provide units consisting of lower berths, upper berths, sections, drawing rooms, and compartments; that the lower berth and upper berth units are so arranged that when prepared for occupancy each of said units is a compartment separated from all other space in the car; that the charge for the use of each of said units is fixed by tariffs established by the state of Wisconsin and by the Interstate Commerce Commission respectively. Under the Wisconsin law the rate from Portage to Star Lake was $1.50 for a lower berth, $1.20 for the upper berth, and $2.70 for the section. It was averred and admitted that Hall, while demanding of the defendant's conductor 'that the upper berth be put back and kept there so that he might have the use of the entire section, paid for the use of the lower berth only, and did not offer to pay the tariff for the entire section.'

The railroad company further averred that it operated sleeping cars over its system of more than 7,000 miles of interstate roads, and that the Interstate Commerce Commission had prescribed rates for each of said sleeping car units on trains running to and from the state of Wisconsin. The rate fixed for the upper was 80 per cent of the charge for the use of the lower; the price for the whole section being the sum of the two rates. No order had been made by the Interstate Commission which prohibits the use of the upper berth while the lower berth is occupied. It was averred that a compliance with the Wisconsin statute would convenience the occupant of the particular lower berth only, and would not add to the comfort or promote the health, safety, or convenience of the other occupants of the car, but would injuriously affect passengers occupying lower berths.

The company insisted that the statute was arbitrary and unreasonable; not designed to accomplish a legitimate public purpose, and contrary to natural justice. It claimed that the statute denied to it the equal protection of the laws; took its property without due process of law, in violation of the 14th Amendment, and attempted to regulate interstate commerce.

There was a hearing before the court without a jury. Some of the averments in the railroad's answer were admitted to be true. In addition witnesses were sworn whose testimony—admitted over objection—was to the effect that, while the company had a pecuniary interest in having the upper berth kept down when the lower was occupied, yet such lowering was necessary to secure the comfort of the occupant of the lower berth, and to prevent him or her from being wakened or disturbed if it became necessary to put down the upper berth and arrange it so that it could be occupied by a passenger who had purchased such upper space during the night. The evidence was to the effect that the opening of the curtains, the glare of the light, the noise of lowering the berth, the work of arranging the bedding for the upper berth and securing the holding wires would necessarily inconvenience the man or woman occupying the lower berth; deprive him or her of the privacy to which they were entitled, and interrupt the rest and sleep to secure which they had engaged the berth.

There was evidence that an ordinary sleeping car was better ventilated than an ordinary passenger coach, said to be due to the fact that the coach not only carried more passengers, but did not have the ventilating appliances in use on sleeping cars.

There was in addition much evidence, admitted over objection, to prove the methods by which and the extent to which sleeping cars were ventilated. It appeared that a car of ordinary size contained about 5,000 cubic feet of air and that, by means of a series of suction ventilators, operated by the movement of the train, the air therein was sucked through openings in the top of the car. The faster the movement the more rapid the suction. By measuring the air escaping through the ventilators, it had been shown that when the train was running at 35 miles an hour the air in the sleeping car was renewed every two minutes. This air was replaced by that coming through doors, end openings for ventilating purposes, screens or windows as the case might be. There was also testimony that when the upper berth was down and the curtains closed the air came in and went out of the lower berth through windows, screens, air spaces, and numerous openings between the curtain and the bed.

There was evidence that while the circulation in the lower berth was not so good as that in the aisle, yet the air in the car and in such lower berth was not injurious to health, as demonstrated by repeated chemical analyses of a sample of air taken from such lower berths, from the aisles and from other portions of the cars. There was evidence, and contention based on common knowledge, that the letting down of the upper berth did not affect the health or convenience of the occupants of the car or of either berth. This was demonstrated by the absence of injurious effects and the fact that lower berths with the upper berths down had thus been constantly used by travelers since sleeping cars were invented.

There was further evidence that the car in question was arranged substantially like those operated by sleeping car companies throughout the United States. In all of them the upper berth was regularly put down when the lower was occupied, unless the whole section was engaged by one person. There was a further contention that this was true in every state in the Union,—no one of which prohibited the letting down of the upper when the lower was occupied.

The court found as a fact:

'That the closing of upper berths in sleeping cars has very little effect upon the circulation of air in such sleeping cars when all lower berths are made up and ready for occupancy.

'That the lowering of upper berths does not endanger the lives, health, or safety of persons occupying lower berths in sleeping cars.

'That the closing of the upper berth will be a convenience to the person occupying the berth below the same, and will add to the comfort of such person alone, and not to that of the public generally.

'That the defendant has a right to charge for the use of the space occupied by the upper berth, and that such right is the property of the defendant.'

He concluded, as matter of law, that the state was not entitled to recover the penalty, and dismissed the complaint. The case was then taken to the supreme court of Wisconsin, which (152 Wis. 348, 140 N. W. 70, Ann. Cas. 1914C, 478) said that the trial court held that the evidence showed a compliance with the act would affect the convenience and comfort of the traveling public in but a slight degree, but that 'the court's view of the evidence was evidently the result of the court's erroneous idea of what, in the legal sense, is essential to present an occasion or exigency involving the general welfare.' The court further said that 'in the light of such common knowledge the evidence in the case tends to show that the effects of this regulation do contribute to the comfort and convenience of the traveling public and thereby contribute to promote their health and the general welfare;' that the regulating 'statute was a legal exercise of the police power;' and that the regulations only incidentally affect interstate commerce. The 'law permits the berths to be occupied and used when any person desires them, and thus the defendant is secured against loss for services it may be able to furnish the public.' It thereupon reversed the judgment of the trial court. The railroad company then brought the case here, assigning as error that the judgment sustaining the statute deprived it of property without due process of law, interfered with its management of cars, and made a discrimination between the privileges accorded state and interstate passengers in the same car at the same time.

Messrs. Frank B. Kellogg, Burton Hanson, and Gustavus S. Fernald for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Walter drew and Mr. W. C. Owen, Attorney General of...

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