Delaware Co v. Converse

Decision Date30 March 1891
Citation35 L.Ed. 213,11 S.Ct. 569,139 U.S. 469
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

J. D. Bedle, for plaintiff in error.

J. B. Vredenburgh, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice HARLAN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

The object, of this action is to recover damages for injuries, in person and property, alleged to have been sustained by the defendant in error (who was the plaintiff below) in consequence of the negligent manner in which the cars of the plaintiff in error were operated on the occasion when such injuries were received. The jury returned a verdict against the railroad company for $14,000. That amount being regarded by the court as excessive, the plaitif f remitted all of it except $7,500, and judgment was entered for the latter sum.

While there was some conflict in the evidence relating to certain matters, the following facts were clearly established: The plaintiff, at the time of the injuries in question, and for 10 years previous thereto, was the county physician of Hudson county, N. J. In the discharge of his duties he went daily from Jersey City to the county farm, on which were located a penitentiary, insane asylum, and almshouse belonging to the county, and which were reached by a public road crossing the Boonton branch of the Delaware, Lackawana & Western Railroad at Secaucus station in the vicinity of the county farm. That road, commonly called the 'county road,' is built through meadow lands, which are unoccupied, except as they have been appropriated and used for the purposes of the railroad company. There is, substantially, no travel upon it except by those going to and from the county farm. About a half dozen wagons or vehicles on an average pass over the crossing every night. The road is from 25 to 30 feet in width, and macadamized, and without a fence upon either side of it. At the crossing in question there are two main tracks of the railroad, one called the 'east-bound' and the other the 'west-bound' track; and five other tracks,—two on the south side of the east-bound track, and three on the north side of the west-bound track.

The plaintiff, on the 13th day of March, 1886, went from Jersey City to the county farm over this county road, in a four-wheel buggy or phaeton, having a top or hood that could be let down or raised. He reached the county farm, crossing the railroad tracks at Secaucus station, between 6 and 7 o'clock in the evening of that day, and started back to Jersey City about 8 o'clock. As he aproached the station on his return, sitting in his buggy, with the top up, and moving at an easy gait, he observed, about 15 minutes after 8 o'clock, at a distance of 100 feet or less, a train of freight-cars drawn by a locomotive engine, coming on the defendant's road from the west. The train, just before reaching the point where the county road crossed the railroad tracks, was severed by the direction of those in charge of it; the engine, with the 12 cars next to it, going ahead over a switch into the railroad yard, while the other cars, 12 in number, with a caboose attached to them, making what is called a 'running switch,' were left to follow, by their own momentum, without being controlled otherwise than by ordinary brakes. When the engine and cars constituting the first section of the train passed the county road there was a gap between the two sections of the severed train, the rear section being about 90 feet behind the other, and passing across the county road at the rate of about 10 miles an hour. The plaintiff attempted to cross the railroad tracks as soon as the engine and the cars attached to it had cleared the county road. There were neither gates, lights, nor flagman at the crossing. There was no light on the front car of the rear section of 13 cars when they reached the crossing. The only light upon the cars of that section when they reached the crossing was in the caboose. Before reaching the crossing, a brakeman on the rear section had a lantern that was placed on the platform at the rear end of the first car of that section, which platform was, however, two feet below the roof of the car. This light was extinguished by the wind before the rear section of the train reached the crossing. After the plaintiff got on the railroad tracks with his buggy, but before reaching the east-bound main track, he discovered the cars constituting the rear section of the train, distant but a few feet, coming down upon him, and too close to be avoided. The train hit his buggy, entirely destroying it, and seriously, if not permanently, injuring him.

Upon substantially these facts, about which there could not be any dispute, the court instructed the jury as matter of law that the railroad company was negligent in respct to its duty to persons traveling upon the public road in question; and that the plaintiff was entitled to recover damages for any injuries sustained by him as the result of such negligence, unless it appeared that he contributed to such injuries by his own carelessness.

It is contended that the court erred in not submitting to the jury the issue as to defendant's negligence. Undoubtedly, questions of negligence, in actions like the present one, are ordinarily for the jury, under proper directions as to the principles of law by which they should be controlled. But it is well settled that the court may withdraw a case from them altogether, and direct a verdict for the plaintiff or the defendant, as the one or the other may be proper, where the evidence is undisputed, or is of such conclusive character that the court, in the exercise of a sound judicial discretion, would be compelled to set aside a verdict returned in opposition to it. Insurance Co. v. Doster, 106 U. S. 30, 32, 1 Sup. Ct. Rep. 18; Griggs v. Houston, 104 U. S. 553; Randall v. Railroad Co., 109 U. S. 478, 482, 3 Sup. Ct. Rep. 322; County of Anderson v. Beal, 113 U. S. 227, 241, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 433; Schofield v. Railway Co., 114 U. S. 615, 618, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1125. 'It would be an idle proceeding,' this court said in North Penn. Railroad v. Commercial Bank, 123 U. S. 727, 733, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 266, 'to submit the evidence to the jury when they could justly find only in one way.' In the present case, it was incumbent on the plaintiff, as a condition of his right to recover, to prove that the defendant was guilty of negligence, resulting in his being injured, and, that issue being in his favor, he was entitled to a verdict, unless it appeared that his own negligence substantially contributed to his injury. If the evidence was so conclusive against the defendant upon the question of its negligence that the jury could not reasonably find to the contrary, it was competent for the court, within the doctrines of the cases above cited, to so instruct them, leaving the jury to determine the question of the plaintiff's negligence, in respect to which the evidence was conflicting.

The inquiry, therefore, is whether the court erred in holding, as matter of law, under the evidence, that the defendant was guilty of negligence. Upon this question we entertain no doubt. While those using a public highway are under a duty to keep out of the way of railroad cars crossing it, and to exercise to that end such care as the circumstances make necessary, the railroad company, in moving cars upon its road is bound...

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