Donnell v. Elgin Ry Co

Decision Date12 December 1949
Docket NumberNo. 56,56
Citation16 A.L.R.2d 646,70 S.Ct. 200,94 L.Ed. 187,338 U.S. 384
PartiesO'DONNELL v. ELGIN, J. & E. RY. CO
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 338 U.S. 945, 70 S.Ct. 427.

Mr. Joseph D. Ryan, Chicago, Ill., for petitioner.

Mr. Harlan L. Hackbert, Chicago, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51—60, 45 U.S.C.A. §§ 51—60. The complaint mingled in a single count or cause of action charges of general negligence and a specific charge that defendant 'carelessly and negligently' violated the Safety Appliance Act, 45 U.S.C. § 2, 45 U.S.C.A. § 2, by operating a car not equipped with the prescribed coupler. The jury found against plaintiff and judgment for defendant was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. 171 F.2d 973. This result must stand if the jury was properly instructed, as to which the Court of Appeals divided.

O'Donnell, whose administratrix is petitioner here and was plaintiff below, met an unwitnessed death while working in defendant's yards as a member of its switching crew. When last seen, he was going to adjust the couplers on certain cars which previously had failed to couple by impact. Shortly after his departure, as the result of the breaking of a coupler, two cars broke loose from a cut of cars that was being moved in a switching operation. Running free, they collided with other standing cars and drove them against those whose couplers decedent had said he was going to adjust. Some time later decedent's mangled body was found lying across one rail of the track on which the cars he had intended to prepare for coupling had stood. That he had gone between them to adjust the couplers is suggested by the fact that they coupled upon impact with the colliding cars, though they previously had failed so to do. Petitioner's contention, from all the circumstances proved, is that O'Donnell's death was proximately caused by the breaking of the coupler, which permitted the two cars to run free, strike the standing cars, and cause unexpected movement of the cars between which O'Donnell was engaged. Respondent contends that they indicate instead that death resulted from a later and independent movement on the track when the runaway cars were hauled out—an event which took place before discovery of decedent's body but after the collision of the two sets of cars. We need not resolve the conflict between these competing theories of causation, for that decision was for the jury. Ellis v. Union Pacific R. Co., 329 U.S. 649, 653, 67 S.Ct. 598, 600, 91 L.Ed. 572.

Our concern is with the effect accorded by the trial court's instructions to the breaking of the coupler. The issue was defined by the Court of Appeals: 'The record is devoid of any request by plaintiff that the jury be instructed that they might infer negligence from the breaking of the coupler, but in the District Court plaintiff contended for and tendered instructions upon the theory that a breaking of the coupler in and of itself was negligence per se. The court refused to so instruct.' 171 F.2d at page 976. The Court of Appeals, with one dissent, sustained this refusal so to charge, saying, 'We do not believe the Act required defendant to furnish couplers that would not break. We think the true rule is that where a cou- pler does break, the jury may, if they think it reasonable under all the circumstances, infer that the coupler was defective and was furnished and used in violation of the Act. The cases go no further than to hold that from the breaking of a coupler the jury may infer negligence.' As this view of the Safety Appliance Act appears to conflict with the rule laid down in other jurisdictions,1 we granted certiorari. 337 U.S. 929, 69 S.Ct. 1495.

A close and literal reading of the Safety Appliance Act, 45 U.S.C. § 2, 45 U.S.C.A. § 2,2 suggests that two functions only are required of couplers: that they couple automatically by impact and that they uncouple without requiring men to go between the ends of the cars. This construction finds some support in the decisions. See, e.g., St. Louis & San Francisco R. Co. v. Conarty, 238 U.S. 243, 250, 35 S.Ct. 785, 786, 59 L.Ed. 1290; Chicago, B. & Q.R. Co. v. United States, 220 U.S. 559, 571, 31 S.Ct. 612, 614, 55 L.Ed. 582; Louisville & Nashville R. Co. v. Layton, 243 U.S. 617, 37 S.Ct. 456, 61 L.Ed. 931; Johnson v. Southern Pacific Co., 196 U.S. 1, 18, 25 S.Ct. 158, 161, 162, 49 L.Ed. 363. See also United States v. Southern R. Co., D.C. 1905, 135 F. 122, 127; Chesapeake & Ohio R. Co. v. Charlton, 4 Cir., 1917, 247 F. 34, 40; Chicago, M St. P. & P.R. Co. v. Linehan, 8 Cir., 1933, 66 F.2d 373, 377; Penn v. Chicago & N.W.R. Co., 7 Cir., 1947, 163 F.2d 995, 997.

Courts at other times have held, however, that failure of couplers to remain coupled until released constitutes or evidences a violation of the Act just as does their failure to couple upon impact or uncouple from the sides of cars. As stated by the Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, the Act 'is also aimed at insuring couplers that will hold together.' Keenan v. Director General of Railroads, 2 Cir., 1922, 285 F. 286, 290; Philadelphia & R.R. Co. v. Eisenhart, 3 Cir., 1922, 280 F. 271; Erie R. Co. v. Caldwell, 6 Cir., 1920, 264 F. 947; Southern Pacific Co. v. Thomas, 21 Ariz. 355, 188 P. 268; Kowalski v. Chicago, N.W.R. Co., 159 Minn. 388, 199 N.W. 178; McAllister v. St. Louis Merchants' Bridge Terminal R. Co., 324 Mo. 1005, 25 S.W.2d 791; Saxton v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 256 N.Y. 363, 176 N.E. 425; Stewart v. Wabash R. Co., 105 Neb. 812, 182 N.W. 496. And see Reetz v. Chicago & E.R. Co., 6 Cir., 1931, 46 F.2d 50. This appears also to have been the view of this Court in the only case of this nature ever before it. Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Gotschall, 244 U.S. 66, 37 S.Ct. 598, 61 L.Ed. 995. See also Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie R. Co. v. Goneau, 269 U.S. 406, 46 S.Ct. 129, 70 L.Ed. 335.

It is hard to think of a coupler defect in which greater danger inheres to workmen, travelers and all to whom the railroad owes a duty, than one which sets cars running uncontrolled upon its tracks. We find it difficult to read the Safety Appliance Act to require that cars be equipped with appliances which couple automatically by impact and which may be released without going between the ends of cars, but which need not remain coupled in the meantime. The Act so construed would guard against dangers incident to effecting an engagement or disengagement while ignoring the even greater hazards which can result from the failure of a coupling to perform its main function, which is to stay coupled until released.

We hold that the Safety Appliance Act requires couplers which, after a secure coupling is effected, will remain coupled until set free by some purposeful act of control.

What then should a jury be instructed is the consequence of a failure to provide couplers that so perform? Should the jury be instructed that it must find liability or merely that it may find liability for injuries proximately resulting from the failure?

The arguments and instructions in this case, as well as others, and the language of many opinions and texts reflect widespread confusion as to the effect to be accorded a violation of the federal safety applicance statute. 3 Part of this confusion is traceable to the diversity of judicial opinion concerning the consequences attributed in negligence actions to the violation of a statute.4 Breach of certain statutes in various jurisdictions will be regarded as some evidence of negligence, to be weighed by the jury along with the facts. Hayes v. Michigan Central R. Co., 111 U.S. 228, 240, 4 S.Ct. 369, 374, 28 L.Ed. 410; Union Pacific R. Co. v. McDonald, 152 U.S. 262, 283, 14 S.Ct. 619, 627, 38 L.Ed. 434. At other times or places, or under other statutes, a violation may be 'prima facie' or 'presumptive' evidence of negligence which defendant must meet or overcome. E.g., Voiles v. Hunt, 213 Iowa 1234, 240 N.W. 703. Courts sometimes talk of it in terms of res ipsa loquitur, cf. Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Gotschall, supra, or treat violations as negligence per se. E.g., San Antonio & A.R.R. Co. v. Wagner, 241 U.S. 476, 484, 36 S.Ct. 626, 629, 60 L.Ed. 1110; Watts v. Montgomery Traction Co., 175 Ala. 102, 57 So. 471; Evans v. Klusmeyer, 301 Mo. 352, 359, 256 S.W. 1036, 1037-1038. It is not uncommon that within the same jurisdiction the rule is different as to different statutes. See Martin v. Herzog, 228 N.Y. 164, 168, 126 N.E. 814, 815. But usually, unless the statute sets up a special cause of action for its breach, a violation becomes an ingredient, of greater or lesser weight, in determining the ultimate question of negligence.

But this Court early swept all issues of negligence out of cases under the Safety Appliance Act. For reasons set forth at length in our books, the Court held that a failure of equipment to perform as required by the Safety Appliance Act is in itself an actionable wrong, in no way dependent upon negligence and for the proximate results of which there is liability—a liability that cannot be escaped by proof of care or diligence. St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern R. Co. v. Taylor, 210 U.S. 281, 294, 28 S.Ct. 616, 620, 52 L.Ed. 1061; Chicago, B. & Q.R. Co. v. United States, supra, 220 U.S. 575—577, 31 S.Ct. 615—617, 55 L.Ed. 582; Delk v. St. Louis & San Francisco R. Co., 220 U.S. 580, 31 S.Ct. 617, 55 L.Ed. 590. These rigorous holdings were more recently epitomized by Chief Justice Hughes, speaking for the Court: 'The statutory liability is not based upon the carrier's negligence. The duty imposed is an absolute one, and the carrier is not excused by any showing of care, however assiduous.' Brady v. Terminal Railroad Ass'n of St. Louis, 303 U.S. 10, 15, 58 S.Ct. 426, 429, 82 L.Ed. 614.

Notwithstanding this Court's efforts to distinguish the safety...

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