Railroad Company v. Stout

Decision Date01 October 1873
Citation17 Wall. 657,21 L.Ed. 745,84 U.S. 657
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of Nebraska.

Henry Stout, a child six years of age and living with his parents, sued, by his next friend, the Sioux City and Pacific Railroad Company, in the court below, to recover damages for an injury sustained upon a turntable belonging to the said company. The turntable was in an open space, about eighty rods from the company's depot, in a hamlet or settlement of one hundred to one hundred and fifty persons. Near the turntable was a travelled road passing through the depot grounds, and another travelled road near by. On the railroad ground, which was not inclosed or visibly separated from the adjoining property, was situated the company's station-house, and about a quarter of a mile distant from this was the turntable on which the plaintiff was injured. There were but few houses in the neighborhood of the turntable, and the child's parents lived in another part of the town, and about three-fourths of a mile distant. The child, without the knowledge of his parents, set off with two other boys, the one nine and the other ten years of age, to go to the depot, with no definite purpose in view. When the boys arrived there, it was proposed by some of them to go to the turntable to play. The turntable was not attended or guarded by any servant of the company, was not fastened or locked, and revolved easily on its axis. Two of the boys began to turn it, and in attempting to get upon it, the foot of the child (he being at the time upon the railroad track) was caught between the end of the rail on the turntable as it was revolving, and the end of the iron rail on the main track of the road, and was crushed.

One witness, then a servant of the company, testified that he had previously seen boys playing at the turntable, and had forbidden them from playing there. But the witness had no charge of the table, and did not communicate the fact of having seen boys playing there, to any of the officers or servants of the company having the table in charge.

One of the boys, who was with the child when injured, had previously played upon the turntable when the railroad men were working on the track, in sight, and not far distant.

It appeared from the testimony that the child had not, before the day on which he was now injured, played at the turntable, or had, indeed, ever been there.

The table was constructed on the railroad company's own land, and, the testimony tended to show, in the ordinary way. It was a skeleton turntable, that is to say, it was not planked between the rails, though it had one or two loose boards upon the ties. There was an iron latch fastened to it which turned on a hinge, and, when in order, dropped into an iron socket on the track, and held the table in position while using. The catch of this latch was broken at the time of the accident. The latch, which weighed eight or ten pounds, could be easily lifted out of the catch and thrown back on the table, and the table was allowed to be moved about. This latch was not locked, or in any way fastened down before it was broken, and all the testimony on that subject tended to show that it was not usual for railroad companies to lock or guard turntables, but that it was usual to have a latch with a catch, or a draw-bolt, to keep them in position when used.

The record stated that 'the counsel for the defendant disclaimed resting their defence on the ground that the plaintiff's parents were negligent, or that the plaintiff (considering his tender age) was negligent, but rested their defence on the ground that the company was not negligent, and asserted that the injury to the plaintiff was accidental or brought upon himself.'

On the question whether there was negligence on the part of the railway company in the management or condition of its turntable, the judge charged the jury——

'That to maintain the action it must appear by the evidence that the turntable, in the condition, situation, and place where it then was, was a dangerous machine, one which, if unguarded or unlocked, would be likely to cause injury to children; that if in its construction and the manner in which it was left it was not dangerous in its nature, the defendants were not liable for negligence; that they were further to consider whether, situated as it was as the defendants' property in a small town, somewhat remote from habitations, there was negligence in not anticipating that injury might occur if it was left unlocked or unguarded; that if they did not have reason to anticipate that children would be likely to resort to it, or that they would be likely to be injured if they did resort to it, then there was no negligence.'

The jury found a verdict of $7500 for the plaintiff, from the judgment upon which this writ of error was brought.

Mr. Isaac Cook, for the plaintiff in error, insisted——

1st. That the party injured was himself in fault, that his own negligence produced the result, and that upon well-settled principles, a party thus situated is not entitled to recover.

2d. That there was no negligence proved on the part of the defendant in the condition or management of the table.

3d. That the facts being undisputed, the question of negligence was one of law, to be passed upon by the court, and should not have been submitted to the jury.

Mr. S. A. Strickland, contra.

Mr. Justice HUNT delivered the opinion of the court.

1st. It is well settled that the conduct of an infant of tender years is not to be judged by the same rule which governs that of an adult. While it is the general rule in regard to an adult, that to entitle him to recover damages for an injury resulting from the fault or negligence of another, he must himself have been free from fault, such is not the rule in regard to an infant of tender years. The care and caution required of a child is according to his maturity and capacity only, and this is to be determined in each case by the circumstances of that case.1

But it is not necessary to pursue this subject. The record expressly states that 'the counsel for the defendant disclaim resting their defence on the ground that the plaintiff's parents were negligent, or that the plaintiff (considering his tender age) was negligent, but rest their defence on the ground that the company was not negligent, and claim that the injury to the plaintiff was accidental or brought upon himself.'

This disclaimer ought to dispose of the question of the plaintiff's negligence, whether made in a direct form, or indirectly under the allegation that the plaintiff was a trespasser upon the railroad premises, and therefore cannot recover.

A reference to some of the authorities on the last suggestion may, however, be useful.

In the well-known case of Lynch v. Nurdin,2 the child was clearly a trespasser in climbing upon the cart, but was allowed to recover.

In Birge v. Gardner,3 the same judgment was given and the same principle was laid down. In most of the actions, indeed, brought to recover for injuries to children, the position of the child was that of a technical trespasser.

In Daly v. Norwich and Worcester Railroad Company,4 it is

said the fact that the person was trespassing at the time is no excuse, unless he thereby invited the act or his negligent conduct contributed to it.

In Bird v. Holbrook5 the plaintiff was injured by the spring guns set in the defendant's grounds, and although the plaintiff was a trespasser the defendant was held liable.

There are no doubt cases in which the contrary rule is laid down. But we conceive the rule to be this: that while a railway company is not bound to the same degree of care in regard to mere strangers who are unlawfully upon its premises that it owes to passengers conveyed by it, it is not exempt from responsibility to such strangers for injuries arising from its negligence or from its tortious acts.

2d. Was there negligence on the part of the railway company in the management or condition of its turntable?

The charge on this point (see supra, p. 659) was an impartial and intelligent one. Unless the defendant...

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