Patton v. Texas Pacific Railway Company

Decision Date07 January 1901
Docket NumberNo. 123,123
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Plaintiff in error, plaintiff below, brought his action against the defendant to recover for injuries sustained while in its em- ploy as fireman. A judgment in his favor was reversed on April 10, 1894, by the circuit court of appeals. 9 C. C. A. 487, 23 U. S. App. 319, 61 Fed. Rep. 259. On a second trial in the circuit court the judge directed a verdict for the defendant, upon which judgment was rendered. This judgment was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals (37 C. C. A. 56, 95 Fed. Rep. 244), and thereupon the case was brought here on error.

The facts were that plaintiff was a fireman on a passenger train of the defendant, running from El Paso to Toyah and return. Some three or four hours after one of those trips had been made, and while the engine of which he was fireman was being moved in the railroad yards at El Paso, plaintiff attempted to step off the engine, and in doing so the step turned, and he fell so far under the engine that the wheels passed over his right foot, crushing it so that amputation became necessary. Plaintiff alleged that the step turned because the nut which held it was not securely fastened; that the omission to have it so fastened was negligence on the part of the company, for which it was liable.

Messrs. Frank W. Hackett and Millard Patterson for plaintiff in error.

Messrs. John F. Dillon, Winslow S. Pierce, and David D. Duncan for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the court:

The plaintiff's contention is that the trial court erred in directing a verdict for the defendant, and in failing to leave the question of negligence to the jury.

That there are times when it is proper for a court to direct a verdict is clear. 'It is well settled that the court may withdraw a case from them altogether, and direct a verdict for the plaintiff or the defendant, as the one or the other may be proper, where the evidence is undisputed, or is of such conclusive character that the court, in the exercise of a sound judicial discretion, would be compelled to set aside a verdict returned in op- position to it. Phoenix Mut. L. Ins. Co. v. Doster, 106 U. S. 30, 32, 27 L. ed. 66, 1 Sup. Ct. Rep. 18; Griggs v. Houston, 104 U. S. 553, 26 L. ed. 840; Randall v. Baltimore & O. R. Co. 109 U. S. 478, 482, 27 L. ed. 1003, 1005, 3 Sup. Ct. Rep. 322; Anderson County Comrs. v. Beal, 113 U. S. 227, 241, 28 L. ed 966, 971, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 433; Schofield v. Chicago, M. & St. P. R. Co. 114 U. S. 615, 618, 29 L. ed. 224, 225, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1125; Delaware, L. & W. R. Co. v. Converse, 139 U. S. 469, 472, 35 L. ed. 213, 215, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 569.' See also Aerkfetz v. Humphreys, 145 U. S. 418, 36 L. ed. 758, 12 Sup. Ct. Rep. 835; Elliott v. Chicago, M. & St. P. R. Co. 150 U. S. 245, 37 L. ed. 1068, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 85.

It is undoubtedly true that cases are not to be lightly taken from the jury; that jurors are the recognized triers of questions of fact; and that ordinarily negligence is so far a question of fact as to be properly submitted to and determined by them. Richmond & D. R. Co. v. Powers, 149 U. S. 43, 37 L. ed. 642, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 748.

Hence it is that seldom an appellate court reverses the action of a trial court in declining to give a peremptory instruction for a verdict one way or the other. At the same time, the judge is primarily responsible for the just outcome of the trial. He is not a mere moderator of a town meeting, submitting questions to the jury for determination, nor simply ruling on the admissibility of testimony, but one who in our jurisprudence stands charged with full responsibility. He has the same opportunity that jurors have for seeing the witnesses, for noting all those matters in a trial not capable of record, and when in his deliberate opinion there is not excuse for a verdict save in favor of one party, and he so rules by instructions to that effect, an appellate court will pay large respect to his judgment. And if such judgment is approved by the proper appellate court, this court, when called upon to review the proceedings of both courts, will rightfully be much influenced by their concurrent opinions.

While it would needlessly prolong this opinion to quote all the testimony, it is proper that is salient features should be noticed. The single negligence charged is in the failure to have the engine step securely fastened. That step, a shovel-shaped piece of iron, is firmly fixed to a rod of iron about 1 inch in diameter and 18 inches in length, which passes up through the iron casting at the rear of the engine, about 6 or 8 inches thick. A shoulder to this rod fits underneath the casting, and the part passing through above has threads on the upper end upon which a nut is screwed firmly down on the casting, fastening the rod so that it will not move. That the step, rod, and nut were in themselves all that could be required is not disputed. That the nut was properly screwed on at El Paso, before the engine started on its trip, is shown; the plaintiff, who assisted there, testifying to the fact. The engineer testified that he used the step both on the trip to Toyah and the return trip to El Paso, and found it secure; and there is nothing to contradict this evidence. The engineer in his report of needed work both at Toyah and on his return at El Paso did not mention the step. He certainly supposed it secure. Competent inspectors were provided by the company both at El Paso and Toyah, and neither of them detected any failure in the secure fastening of the step by the nut. All of the witnesses, except the superintendent and foreman of defendant, testified that if the nut had been securely fastened at El Paso it would not have worked loose in making the trip from El Paso to Toyah and return by the ordinary jar and running of the engine; that it might be loosened by the step striking something. The superintendent and foreman testified from an experience of twenty years with engines that it might work loose on such trip, but that it was impossible to tell whether it would or not.

It was the duty of the fireman to clean the cab and all that portion of the engine above the running board, and to keep the oil cans and lubricators filled with oil. It was not necessary for him to attend to this work until eight hours after the engine arrived at El Paso, though it was more convenient to do so while the engine was hot and the oil warm, as it would take less time than when the engine was cooled off. After the engine reached El Paso the fireman and the engineer would get off, and it would be taken charge of by the yardmen, who would detach it from the train, take it to the yard, coal and sand it, and do all things necessary except the matter of repair, then place it in the round house, where it would be cleaned by employees other than the fireman, in all its parts beneath the running board, and inspected by the machinist, and repaired; and after that, the fireman would have ample time for all the duties imposed upon...

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