Northern Pac Co v. Urlin

Decision Date20 May 1895
Docket NumberNo. 272,272
Citation39 L.Ed. 977,15 S.Ct. 840,158 U.S. 271
PartiesNORTHERN PAC. R. CO. v. URLIN
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

This was an action brought by Alfred J. Urlin, in the circuit court of the United States for the district of Montana, against the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, to recover for personal injuries received by him when traveling as a passenger in one of its trains.

The car in which the plaintiff was riding became derailed, and was thrown down a bank, and overturned. The complaint charged that the accident was due to 'the defective, decayed, and rotten condition of the cross-ties' in the road, and that the plaintiff received 'severe and dangerous wounds and internal injuries.'

The case proceeded to trial before the court and a jury, and resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff in the sum of $7,500, and the jury also returned certain special findings which had been submitted to them at the request of the defendant. Judgment was entered upon said verdict and special findings. During the trial several exceptions were taken by the defendant, which were allowed and signed by the judge, and which are brought for review to this court by a writ of error.

A. H. Garland, W. E. Cullen, and J. K. Toole, for plaintiff in error.

Frank H. Woody, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice SHIRAS delivered the opinion of the court.

The first assignment avers error in permitting the medical witnesses who testified in behalf of the plaintiff to be asked whether the examinations made by them 'were made in a superficial, or in a careful and thorough, manner.'

It is urged that this question was objectionable, both as leading, and as taking from the jury the determination of the inquiry whether the medical examination was thorough, or otherwise.

It cannot be safely said that in no case can a court of errors take notice of an exception to the conduct of the trial court in permitting leading questions. But such conduct must appear to be a plain case of abuse of discretion.

'We are not aware of any case in which a new trial has ever been granted for the reason that leading questions, though objected to, have been allowed to be put to a witness.' Green v. Gould, 3 Allen, 466.

'The allowance of a leading question is within the discretion of the court, and is not ground for reversal.' Insurance Co. v. Groff, 87 Pa. St. 124.

'Circuit courts must be allowed the exercise of a large discretion on the subject of leading questions.' Parmelee v. Austin, 20 Ill. 35.

The second ground—that this question called for the opinion of the witnesses as to the manner in which the physical examinations were made, and thus supplanted the judgment of the jury in that particular—dos not seem to us to be well founded. The obvious purpose of the question was to disclose whether the judgment of the physicians as to the plaintiff's condition was based on a superficial, or on a thorough, examination; and we think it was competent for the witnesses, who were experts, to characterize the manner of the examination.

The refusal of the court to suppress the deposition of Dr. W. P. Mills because it did not disclose that the witness was cautioned and sworn before testifying, as required by the statute, is assigned for error. But it appears that the defendant company was represented by counsel, and took part in the examination, and this must be regarded as a waiver of any irregularity in the taking of the deposition. Bank v. Seton, 1 Pet. 307; Shutte v. Thompson, 15 Wall. 159. Moreover, although a motion was made to suppress the deposition before the trial, yet when it was offered at the trial no objection was made or exception taken, and thus the objection was waived. Ray v. Smith, 17 Wall. 417.

The third assignment is strenuously pressed on our attention in the brief of the plaintiff in error. It arises out of the refusal of the court below to suppress certain portions of the depositions of Drs. Mills and De Witt because of incompetency, and as merely hearsay.

This objection is founded upon the witnesses having been permitted to testify to statements made by the defendant, at various times, to the physicians in respect to his feelings, aches, and pains, and it is contended that such statements were made too long after the occurrence of the injury to be part of the res gestate, but were merely narrations of past incidents; and it is further urged that, whatever reason there may have formerly been, when a party could not himself testify to his sensations, for liberality in admitting such statements, now that he is a competent witness, such reason no longer operates.

An inspection of the depositions shows that the statements objected to were mainly utterances and exclamations of the defendant when undergoing physical examinations by the medical witnesses. As one of the principal questions in the case was whether the injuries of the defendant were of a permanent or of a temporary character, it was certainly competent to prove that, during the two years which had elapsed between the happening of the accident and the trial, there were several medical examinations into the condition of the plaintiff. Every one knows that when injuries are internal, and not obvious to visual inspection, the surgeon has to largely depend on the responses and exclamations of the patient when subjected to examination.

'Whenever the bodily or mental feelings of an individual are material to be proved, the usual expressions of such feelings, made at the time in question, are also original evidence. If they were the natural language of the affection, whether of body or...

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