Lena Slater v. Mexican National Railroad Company

Decision Date11 April 1904
Docket NumberNo. 162,162
Citation24 S.Ct. 581,48 L.Ed. 900,194 U.S. 120
PartiesLENA M. SLATER, W. G. Slater, Jesse R. Slater, Annie E. Slater, and Hency G. Slater, Petitioners , v. MEXICAN NATIONAL RAILROAD COMPANY
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Mason Williams, C. A. Keller, and E. A. Atlee for petitioners.

[Argument of Counsel from Page 121 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Leroy G. Denman, T. W. Dodd, and Denman, Franklin, & McGown for respondent.

[Argument of Counsel from Pages 122-124 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:

This is an action brought in the United States circuit court for the northern district of Texas by citizens and residents of Texas against a Colorado corporation operating a railroad from Texas to the City of Mexico. The plaintiffs are the widow and children of William H. Slater, who was employed by the defendant as a switchman on its road, and was killed through the defendant's negligence while coupling two freight cars at Nueva Laredo, in Mexico. This action is to recover damages for the death. The laws of Mexico were set forth in the plaintiffs' petition, and the defendant demurred on the ground that the cause of action given by the Mexican laws was not transitory, for reasons sufficiently stated. The demurrer was over- ruled, and the defendant excepted. A similar objection was taken also by plea setting forth additional sections of the Mexican statutes. A demurrer to this plea was sustained, subject to exception. The same point was raised again at the trial by a request to direct a verdict for the defendant. The judge who tried the case instructed the jury that the damages to be recovered, if any, were to be measured by the money value of the life of the deceased to the widow and children, and the jury returned a verdict for a lump sum, apportioned to the several plaintiffs. The judge and jury in this regard acted as prescribed by the Texas Rev. Stat. art. 3027. The case then was taken to the circuit court of appeals, where the judgment was reversed and the action ordered to be dismissed. 53 C. C. A. 239, 115 Fed. 593.

There is no need to encumber the reports with all the statutes in the record. The main reliance of the plaintiffs is upon the following agreed translation from the Penal Code, bk. 2. 'Civil Liability in Criminal Matters.' 'Art 301. The civil liability arising from an act or omission contrary to a penal law consists in the obligation imposed on the party liable, to make (1) restitution, (2) reparation, (3) indemnization, and (4) payment of judicial expenses.'

'Art. 304. Reparation comprehends: Payment of all damages caused to the injured party, his family, or a third person for the violation of a right which is formal, existing, and not simply possible, if such damages are actual, and arise directly and immediately from the act or omission complained of, or there be a certainty that such act or omission must necessarily cause a proximate and inevitable consequence.' Coupled with these are articles making railroad companies answerable for the negligence of their servants within the scope of the servants' employment. Penal Code bk. 2, arts. 330, 331; regulations for the construction, maintenance, and operation of railroads, art. 184. We assume for the moment that it was sufficiently alleged and proved that the killing of Slater was a negligent crime within the definition of article 11 of the Penal Code, and, therefore, if the above sections were the only law bearing on the matter, that they created a civil liability to make reparation to any one whose rights were infringed.

As Texas has statutes which give an action for wrongfully causing death, of course there is no general objection of policy to enforcing such a liability there, although it arose in another jurisdiction. Stewart v. Baltimore & O. R. Co. 168 U. S. 445, 42 L. ed. 537, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 105. But when such a liability is enforced in a jurisdiction foreign to the place of the wrongful act, obviously that does not mean that the act in any degree is subject to the lex fori, with regard to either its quality or its consequences. On the other hand, it equally little means that the law of the place of the act is operative outside its own territory. The theory of the foreign suit is that, although the act complained of was subject to no law having force in the forum, it gave rise to an obligation, an obligatio, which, like other obligations, follows the person, and may be enforced wherever the person may be found. Stout v. Wood, 1 Blackf. 71; Dennick v. Central R. Co. 103 U. S. 11, 18, 26 L. ed. 439, 442. But as the only source of this obligation is the law of the place of the act, it follows that that law determines not merely the existence of the obligation (Smith v. Condry, 1 How. 28, 11 L. ed. 35), but equally determines its extent. It seems to us unjust to allow a plaintiff to come here absolutely depending on the foreign law for the foundation of his case, and yet to deny the defendant the benefit of whatever limitations on his liability that law would impose. In Northern P. R. Co. v. Babcock, 154 U. S. 190, 199, 38 L. ed. 958, 961, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 978, an action was brought in the district of Minnesota for a death caused in Montana, and it was held that the damages were to be assessed in accordance with the Montana statute. Therefore we may lay on one side as quite inadmissible the notion that the law of the place of the act may be resorted to so far as to show that the act was a tort, and then may be abandoned, leaving the consequences to be determined according to the accident of the place where the defendant may happen to be caught. See further, Pullman Palace Car. Co. v. Laurence, 74 Miss. 782, 801, 802, 22 So. 53; Morris v Chicago, R. I. & P. R. Co. 65 Iowa, 727, 731, 54 Am. Rep. 39, 23 N. W. 143; Mexican Nat. R. Co. v. Jackson, 89 Tex. 107, 31 L. R. A. 276, 33 S. W. 857; Bruce v. Cincinnati R. Co. 83 Ky. 174, 181; Holmes v. Barclay, 4 La. Ann. 64; Atwood v. Walker, 179 Mass. 514, 519, 61 N. E. 58; Minor, Confl. L. 493, § 200. We are aware that expressions of a different tendency may be found in some English cases. But they do not cover the question before this court, and our opinion is based upon the express adjudication of this court, and, as it seems to us, upon the only theory by which actions fairly can be allowed to be maintained for foreign torts. As the cause of action relied upon is one which is supposed to have arisen in Mexico, under Mexican laws, the place of the death and the domicil of the parties have no bearing upon the case.

The application of these considerations now is to be shown. The general ground on which the plaintiffs bring their suit is, as we have stated, that there is a civil liability imposed on the railroad company arising from an act contrary to the penal law,—a negligent crime, as it is called in the Code. But the Code contains specific provisions for the case of homicide. These necessarily override the merely general rule for torts which also are crimes. Mutual L. Ins. Co. v. Hill, 193 U. S. 551, ante, 538, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 538. By article 311 the right is personal to the parties mentioned in art. 318, and is no part of the estate of the deceased. The specific cause of action is the killing of the deceased. So far as appears, apart from that and the following articles, these plaintiffs would have no right of action for the cause alleged. For article 304 seems to presuppose a right in the family, not to create one, and we cannot assume a general right of the members of a family to sue for causing death. By article 318 civil responsibility for a wrongful homicide includes, besides the expenses of medical attendance and burial and damages to the property of the deceased, the expenses 'of the support not only of the widow, descendants, and ascendants of the deceased, who were being supported by him, he being under legal obligations to do so, but also to the posthumous descendants that he may leave.' Then, by article 319, the obligation to support shall last during the time that the deceased might have lived, calculated by a given life table, but taking the state of his health before the homicide into consideration; but 'the obligation shall cease: 1. At whatever time it shall not be absolutely necessary for the subsistence of those entitled to receive it. 2. When those beneficiaries get married. 3. When the minor children become of age. 4. In any other case in which, according to law, the deceased, if alive, would not be required to continue the support.' It is unnecessary to set forth the detailed provisions as to support in other parts of the statutes. It is sufficiently obvious from what has been quoted that the decree contemplated by the Mexican law is a decree analogous to a decree for alimony in divorce proceedings,—a decree which contemplates periodical payments, and which is subject to modification from time to time, as the circumstances change. See also, arts. 1376, 1377, of the Code of Procedure, and Penal Code, bk. 2, art. 363.

The present action is a suit at common law, and the court has no power to make a decree of this kind contemplated by the Mexican statutes. What the circuit court did was to disregard the principles of the Mexican statute altogether and to follow the Texas statute. This clearly was wrong, and was excepted to specifically. But we are of opinion further that justice to the defendant would not permit the substitution of a lump sum, however estimated, for the periodical payments which the Mexican statute required. The marriage of beneficiaries, the cessation of the absolute necessity for the payments, the arising of other circumstances in which, according to law, the deceased would not have been required to continue the support, all are contingencies the chance of which cannot be estimated by any table of probabilities. It would be going far to give a lump sum in place of an...

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