Rogers v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Co Webb v. Illinois Central Railroad Co Herdman v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co Ferguson v. Cormack Lines

Decision Date25 February 1957
Docket Number46 and 59,MOORE-M,42,Nos. 28,s. 28
Citation1 L.Ed.2d 515,352 U.S. 500,77 S.Ct. 444
PartiesJames C. ROGERS, Petitioner, v. MISSOURI PACIFIC RAILROAD CO. John W. WEBB, Petitioner, v. ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD CO. Virgil HERDMAN, Petitioner, v. PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD CO. Henry FERGUSON, Petitioner, v.cCORMACK LINES, Inc
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Mark D. Eagleton, St. Louis, Mo., for the petitioner.

Mr. Donald B. Sommers, St. Louis, Mo., for the respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

A jury in the Circuit Court of St. Louis awarded damages to the petitioner in this action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.1 The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed upon the ground that the petitioner's evidence did not support the finding of respondent's liability.2 This Court granted certiorari to consider the question whether the decision invaded the jury's function.3

Petitioner was a laborer in a section gang, working on July 17, 1951, along a portion of respondent's double-track line which, near Garner, Arkansas, runs generally north and south. The tracks are on ballast topping the surface of a dirt 'dump' with sloping sides, and there is a path about a yard wide bordering each side of the surface between the crest of the slope and the edge of the allast. Weeds and vegetation, killed chemically preparatory to burning them off, covered the paths and slopes. Petitioner's foreman assigned him to burn off the weeds and vegetation—the first time he was given that task in the two months he had worked for the respondent. He testified that it was customary to burn off such vegetation with a flame thrower operated from a car running on the tracks. Railroad witnesses testified, however, that the respondent discontinued the use of flame throwers at least a year earlier because the fires started by them sometimes spread beyond the railroad right of way.

Petitioner was supplied with a crude hand torch and was instructed to burn off the weeds and vegetation along the west path and for two or three feet down the west slope. The events leading to his mishap occurred after he proceeded with the work to a point within thirty to thirty-five years of a culvert adjoining the path.

Petitioner testified, without contradiction, that the foreman instructed him and other members of the section gang to stop what they were doing when a train passed and to take positions off the tracks and ties to observe in journals of the passing train for hotboxes. The instructions were explicit not to go on either of the tracks or to stand on or near the ends of the ties when a train was passing on a far track. This was a safety precaution because 'the sound of one train would deaden the sound of another one that possibly would come from the other way.'

On this day, petitioner heard the whistle of a train which was approaching from behind him on the east track. He promptly 'quit firing' and ran north to a place on the path near the mentioned culvert. He was standing a few feet from the culvert observing the train for hotboxes when he became enveloped in smoke and flames. The passing train had fanned the flames of the burning vegetation and weeds, carrying the fire to the vegetation around his position. He threw his arm over his face, retreated quickly back on the culvert and slipped and fell from the top of the culvert, suffering the serious injuries for which he sought damages in this suit.

The complaint alleges negligence in that petitioner was 'required to work at a place in close proximity to defendant's railroad tracks, whereon trains moved and passed, causing the fire from said burning weeds and the smoke therefrom to come dangerously close to plaintiff and requiring plaintiff to move away from said danger.' Negligence was also alleged in that the surface of the culvert was not properly maintained because, instead of the usual flat surface giving firm footing for workmen, the surface was 'covered with loose and sloping gravel which did not provide adequate or sufficient footing for plaintiff to thus move or work under the circumstances.'

We think that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury finding for the petitioner. The testimony that the burning off of weeds and vegetation was ordinarily done with flame throwers from cars on the tracks and not, as here, by a workman on foot using a crude hand torch, when that evidence is considered with the uncontradicted testimony that the petitioner was where he was on this narrow path atop the dirt 'dump' in furtherance of explicit orders to watch for hotboxes, supplied ample support for a jury finding that respondent's negligence played a part in the petitioner's injury. These were probative facts from which the jury could find that respondent was or should have been aware of conditions which created a likelihood that petitioner, in performing the duties required of him, would suffer just such an injury as he did.4 Common experience teaches both that a passing train will fan the flames of a fire, and that a person suddenly enveloped in flames and smoke will instinctively react by retreating from the danger and in the process pay scant heed to other dangers which may imperil him. In this view, it was an irrelevant consideration whether the immediate reason for his slipping off the culvert was the presence of gravel negligently allowed by respondent to remain on the surface, or was some cause not identified from the evidence.

The Missouri Supreme Court based its reversal upon its finding of an alleged admission by the petitioner that he knew it was his primary duty to watch the fire. From that premise the Missouri court reasoned that petitioner was inattentive to the fire and that the emergency which confronted him 'was an emergency brought about by himself.'5 It said that if, as petitioner testified, the immediate cause of his fall was that loose gravel on the surface of the culvert rolled out from under him, yet it was his inattention to the fire which caused it to spread and obliged petitioner 'to move blindly away and fall,' and this was 'something extraordinary, unrelated to, and disconnected from the incline of the gravel at the culvert.'6

We interpret the foregoing to mean that the Missouri court found as a matter of law that the petitioner's conduct was the sole cause of his mishap. But when the petitioner agreed that his primary duty was to watch the fire he did not also say that he was relieved of the duty to stop to watch a passing train for hotboxes. Indeed, no witness testified that the instruction was countermanded. At best, uncertainty as to the fact arises from the petitioner's testimony, and in that circumstance not the court, but the jury, was the tribunal to determine the fact.

We may assume that the jury could properly have reached the court's conclusion. But, as the probative facts also supported with reason the verdict favorable to the petitioner,7 the decision was exclusively for the jury to make.8 The jury was instructed to return a verdict for the respondent if it was found that negligence of the petitioner was the sole cause of his mishap. 9 We must take it that the verdict was obedient to the trial judge's charge and that the jury found that such was not the case but that petitioner's injury resulted at least in part from the respondent's negligence.

The opinion may also be read as basing the reversal on another ground, namely, that it appeared to the court that the petitioner's conduct was at least as probable a cause for his mishap as any negligence of the respondent, and that in such case there was no case for the jury. But that would mean that there is no jury question in actions under this statute, although the employee's proofs sup- port with reason a verdict in his favor, unless the judge can say that the jury may exclude the idea that his injury was due to causes with which the defendant was not connected, or, stated another way, unless his proofs are so strong that the jury, on grounds of probability, may exclude a conclusion favorable to the defendant. That is not the governing principle defining the proof which requires a submission to the jury in these cases. The Missouri court's opinion implies its view that this is the governing standard by saying that the proofs must show that 'the injury would not have occurred but for the negligence' of his employer, and that '(t)he test of whether there is causal connection is that, absent the negligent act the injury would not have occurred.'10 That is language of proximate causation which makes a jury question dependent upon whether the jury may find that the defendant's negligence was the sole, efficient, producing cause of injury.

Under this statute the test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify with reason the conclusion that enployer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought.11 It does not matter that, from the evidence, the jury may also with reason, on grounds of probability, attribute the result to other causes, including the employee's contributory negligence.12 Judicial appraisal of the proofs to determine whether a jury question is presented is narrowly limited to the single inquiry whether, with reason, the conclusion may be drawn that negligence of the employer played any part at all in the injury or death. 13 Judges are to fix their sights primarily to make that appraisal and, if that test is met, are bound to find that a case for the jury is made out whether or not the evidence allows the jury a choice of other probabilities. The statute expressly imposes liability upon the employer to pay damages for injury or death due 'in whole or in part' to its negligence.14 (Emphasis added.)

The law was enacted because the Congress was dissatisfied with the common-law duty of the master to his servant.15 The statute supplants that duty with the far more drastic duty of paying damages for injury or death at work...

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