Louisville Nashville Railroad Company v. Spencer Melton

Decision Date31 May 1910
Docket NumberNo. 180,180
Citation218 U.S. 36,54 L.Ed. 921,30 S.Ct. 676
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Benjamin D. Warfield, Henry Lane Stone, Clifton J. Waddill, and Waddill & Dempsey for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 37-41 intentionally omitted] Messrs. James W. Clay, William L. Gordon, William J. Cox, Maurice K. Gordon, and J. F. Clay for defendant in error

[Argument of Counsel from pages 41-43 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice White delivered the opinion of the court:

For personal injuries, Spencer Melton recovered a judgment against the plaintiff in error in the circuit court of Hopkins county, Kentucky. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment (127 Ky. 276, 105 S. W. 366, 110 S. W. 233, 112 S. W. 618), whereupon this writ of error was prosecuted.

Melton, a carpenter, was injured on March company. He was one of a construction way company. He was one of a construction crew, composed of a foreman and six men, who usually did what is described as bridge carpentering. On the date mentioned the crew was engaged, alongside the track of the railway company at Howell, Indiana, in constructing the foundation of a coal tipple at which the engines might coal. A bent or frame of timber, composed of heavy pieces fastened together, and intended to be used as part of the foundation of the tipple, which was lying flat upon the ground, was being raised for the purpose of placing it in the foundation. The lifting was accomplished by means of a block and tackle. A pulley was fastened by an iron chain to an upright piece of timber, and through the pulley a rope passed, which was attached at one end to the bent, so that, on hauling on the rope at the other end, the bent or frame was slowly lifted up. Most of the men were engaged in hauling on the rope, while the foreman and Melton, under his orders, were standing beneath the bent, and were engaged in placing props under the bent to prevent its lowering, when the strain upon the rope passing through the pulley was relaxed. While Melton was in this position a link of the chain which held the pulley at the top of the upright post broke, and the bent fell to the ground with Melton underneath, inflicting upon him serious and permanent injuries. The chain which broke was furnished by the foreman of the gang, and had been put in position under his directions.

Melton was a resident of Hopkins county, Kentucky, and he there commenced this action. The right to recover was based upon the charge that the injury was occasioned through the furnishing by the corporation of unsafe tools to do the work of raising the bent. Besides generally controverting the cause of the injuries, as alleged, the answer of the company set up the defenses of contributory negligence and assumption of the risk. Thereafter Melton was allowed to file an amendment to his petition. By the amendment it was substantially alleged that he was injured without any fault on his part, and solely owing to a defect in the condition of the works or tools connected with or in use in the business of the defendant, and that such defect was the result of negligence on the part of the foreman, who was the person intrusted with the duty of keeping such tools or works in a proper condition, and the accident was also charged to have been caused by the negligent orders of the foreman, to whose directions Melton was bound to conform. The sufficiency of the facts alleged to entitle to recovery was expressly based upon the provisions of the first and second subsections of § 1 of an act of the legislature of Indiana of March 4, 1893, known as the employers' liability statute, reading as follows:

'Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the general assembly of the state of Indiana, that every railroad . . . operating in this state shall be liable in damages for personal injury suffered by any employee while in its service, the employee so injured being in the exercise of due care and diligence, in the following cases:

'First. When such injury was suffered by reason of any defect in the condition of ways, works, plant, tools, and machinery connected with or in use in the business of such corporation, when such defect was the result of negligence on the part of the corporation, or some person intrusted by it with the duty of keeping such way, works, plant, tools, or machinery in proper condition.

'Second. Where such injury resulted from the negligence of any person in the service of such corporation, to whose order or direction the injured employee at the time of the injury was bound to conform, and did conform.'

The court, on the motion of the railway company, having required Melton to determine whether to rely upon the common law or the statute, he elected to base his right to recover on the statute. Thereupon the railway company answered the amended petition, and therein stated as follows:

'Defendant says that the said Indiana statute pleaded connot and does not apply to the facts of this case, and plaintiff cannot rely thereon; and that under the law of Indiana, as to the character of the work then in hand, the plaintiff was a fellow servant with the said foreman of the construction crew, for whose negligence the defendant is not liable.'

Before trial, permission being granted, the railway company, by an additional amendment, defended on the ground that the Indiana statute relied upon, if held applicable to the facts alleged, was repugnant to the Constitution of Indiana and to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The averments on this subject were lengthy, and concluded as follows: 'Defendant distinctly raises the Federal question that the said statute, in so far as made to apply to the facts in this case, is violative of said provision of the Constitution of the United States and void.' The provision referred to, as shown by the context, was the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

On the trial, counsel for the railway company offered as evidence of the common law of the state of Indiana on the subject of fellow servants the opinions of the supreme court of Indiana in the following cases: New Pittsburgh Coal & Coke Co. v. Peterson (filed October 31, 1893), 136 Ind. 398, 43 Am. St. Rep. 327, 35 N. E. 7; Southern Indiana R. Co. v. Harrell (filed October 9, 1903), 161 Ind. 689, 63 L.R.A. 460, 68 N. E. 262; Indianapolis & G. Rapid Transit Co. v. Foreman (filed January 29, 1904), 162 Ind. 85, 102 Am. St. Rep. 185, 69 N. E. 669.

At the close of the evidence for plaintiff, and also upon the conclusion of all the evidence, the railway company unsuccessfully moved the court to peremptorily instruct the jury to find in its favor for the following reasons:

'1. There is no evidence of actionable negligence proven.

'2. The Indiana statute upon which this action is based does not apply to the facts proven.

'3. In so far as the terms of the Indiana statute apply to the facts proven, they are unconstitutional and void. They are discriminatory against defendant and deny it the equal protection of the law. They are violative of the Constitution of Indiana and of § 1, article 14 of the Constitution of the United States, being § 1 of the 14th Amendment thereto.

'4. The said Indiana statutes were not intended to be enforced out of the state of Indiana, and are against the policy of the state of Kentucky, and not enforceable in a Kentucky forum.'

The railway company, in its request for instructions, which were refused, and to which refusals it excepted substantially asked that the general principles of the common law of Indiana as to fellow servant and assumtion of the risk, as exemplified by the Indiana decisions which it had offered in evidence, be applied to the case. The court, on the contrary, in the instructions which it gave, substantially applied the provisions of the Indiana statute, as by it construed. In the motion for a new trial fifteen reasons were stated, those which made reference to the statute or to the Constitution of the United States being the following:

'14. The court erred in applying the Indiana statute to the facts of this case. The court erred in enforcing the Indiana statute in a Kentucky forum.

'15. The court erred in upholding and applying the Indiana statute pleaded in this case, when same, in so far as applicable to the facts proven in this case, is unconstitutional and void. It is discriminatory against defendant, and denies it the equal protection of the law. It is violative of the Constitution of the state of Indiana and of § 1 of article 14 of the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees to defendant the equal protection of the law.'

The court below held that the supreme court of Indiana had construed the statute as applicable both to persons and corporations operating railroads. It further held that the statute embraced the case in hand because Melton came within the category of persons injured in the operation of a railroad, as 'the construction of a coal tipple is . . . essential to the operation of a railroad.' As thus construed, the repugnancy of the statute to the equal protection clause of the Constitution of the United States was considered. It was decided that, for the purpose of abrogating or modifying the common-law doctrine of fellow servant, it was competent for the lawmaking power of a state, without offending against the equal protection clause, to classify railroad employees ployees because of the hazard attached to their vocation, and that a statute doing this need not be confined to employees who were engaged in and about the mere movement of trains, but could also validly include other employees doing work essential to be done to enable the carrying on of railroad operations. Thus, referring to the alleged distinction between railroad operatives engaged in train movement and those who were not, the court said:

'We are unable to see the force of this...

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