Harley v. Buffalo Car Manuf'g Co.

Decision Date10 April 1894
Citation36 N.E. 813,142 N.Y. 31
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Appeal from supreme court, general term, fifth department.

Action by Frank Harley against the Buffalo Car Manufacturing Company for personal injuries. From a judgment of the general term (20 N. Y. Supp. 354) affirming a judgment for plaintiff, defendant appeals. Reversed.

Bartlett, J., dissenting.

Adelbert Moot, for appellant.

George Wing, for respondent


This action was brought by the plaintiff to recover damages against the defendant for a serious injury received by him from the breaking of a belt used to move machinery in the defendant's shop at the city of Buffalo. The principles of law applicable to such a case as this have exposition in many decisions of this court. It is sufficient to cite the following: Devlin v. Smith, 89 N. Y. 470;Burke v. Witherbee, 98 N. Y. 562;Sweeney v. Envelope Co., 101 N. Y. 520, 5 N. E. 358;Bajus v. Railroad Co., 103 N. Y. 312, 8 N. E. 529;Hickey v. Taaffe, 105 N. Y. 26, 12 N. E. 286;Stringham v. Hilton, 111 N. Y. 188, 18 N. E. 870;Buckley v. Manufacturing Co., 113 N. Y. 540, 21 N. E. 717;Dobbins v. Brown, 119 N. Y. 188, 23 N. E. 537;Cosulich v. Oil Co., 122 N. Y. 118, 25 N. E. 259;Hart v. Naumburg, 123 N. Y. 641, 25 N. E. 385;Kern v. Refining Co., 125 N. Y. 50, 25 N. E. 1071;Carlson v. Bridge Co., 132 N. Y. 273, 30 N. E. 750. The master does not guaranty the safety of his servants. He is not bound to furnish them an absolutely safe place to work in, but is bound simply to use reasonable care and prudence in providing such a place. He is not bound to furnish the best-known appliances, but only such as are reasonably fit and safe. He satisfies the requirements of the law if in the selection of machinery and appliances he uses that degree of care which a man of ordinary prudence would use, having regard to his own safety, if he were supplying them for his own personal use. It is culpable negligence which makes the master liable, not a mere error of judgment. Here the belt was fastened at one of its splices with what was called the ‘Buffalo Belt Fastener,’ and while the machinery was running the fastener gave way, and the belt parted, and caused the injury to the plaintiff. It was shown upon the trial that there were several kinds of belt fasteners in use; that all of them were liable to break; that no one could foresee when they would break; and that they generally broke under some unusual strain, which might come from a variety of causes. The witnesses differ as to which of the fasteners in use was the safest and best, some of them giving preference to one kind, and some to another. The evidence shows that one kind would be better on some belts, and another kind better on other belts; the fact of safety and utility depending upon the machinery upon which the fastener is used, the place where it is used, the work which is to be done, and the strain to which it is to be subjected. A number of witnesses, who apparently had had the greatest experience with the Buffalo fastener, gave it the preference for safety and efficiency. It was a patented article, and had been manufactured, sold, and used for several years before this accident. It was manufactured in Buffalo and one of the persons engaged in its manufacture testified that these fasteners were extensively sold all over this country and in Canada, and that some of them were exported; that the sales of them had constantly increased until they reached in value $40,000 a year, and thus it is probable that several hundred thousands of them were sold and put to use every year. The skilled workmen in the employment of the defendant, who had used them for several years, testified that they were convenient, useful, efficient, and safe. It does not appear that they had been less safe than any other fastener in use, nor does it appear that any serious accident had ever before happened from the breaking of any belt fastener. Under such circumstances, how can it be said that the defendant violated any duty it owed to the plaintiff? It was impossible from the evidence to determine whether these fasteners were or were not the best in use for such a belt and such machinery as the defendant had at the time and place of the accident. Suppose a master, needing fasteners in his shop, makes inquiry among men of skill and experience as to the best kind of fasteners to use, and he is informed by some that one kind is the best, and by others that another kind is the best, and so on, and he finally makes a selection, using his best judgment, and suppose it should turn out that it was not the best, could he, under such circumstances, be held liable for an injury received by a person in his service from the parting of a belt on account of the...

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