Rucker v. Wabash Railroad Company

Decision Date03 December 1969
Docket NumberNo. 17392.,17392.
Citation418 F.2d 146
PartiesSandra K. RUCKER, Herbert Rucker, Cheryl Dunham, etc., and James Dunham, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. WABASH RAILROAD COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit


Thomas F. Londrigan, Robert Weiner, Springfield, Ill., for appellants.

Alfred F. Newkirk, of Giffin, Winning, Lindner, Newkirk & Cohen, Springfield, Ill., for appellee.

Before KNOCH, Senior Circuit Judge, CUMMINGS and KERNER, Circuit Judges.

CUMMINGS, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs brought this diversity action for personal injuries resulting from a train-automobile collision on the Constant Street railroad crossing of defendant Wabash Railroad Company at Dawson, Illinois. Four of the counts of the Amended Complaint claimed a statutory violation and a wilful statutory violation. The remaining counts were for negligence and wilful and wanton misconduct. At the close of the evidence, the court directed a verdict for the defendant on the statutory counts, and the jury returned a verdict for the defendant on the common law counts. Plaintiffs appeal from the final judgment entered against them.

On the afternoon of March 25, 1964, plaintiff, Cheryl Dunham, was a passenger in an automobile being driven by her aunt, Sandra Rucker, also a plaintiff. After turning off Route 36 onto Constant Street, Mrs. Rucker's automobile crossed the passing track and stalled on the main track of defendant. Cheryl Dunham jumped out of the car and unsuccessfully attempted to extricate her aunt and to push the car off the track. She then ran down the track away from the eastbound train and was injured when the train, which was approaching Dawson, propelled the car into her. Her aunt was badly injured at the same time.

At the Constant Street crossing, there are three sets of tracks: a passing track, the main track and a house track. The tracks run in an east-west direction and are intersected by Constant Street running north and south. There was testimony from witnesses that at the time of the accident, 82 empty freight cars were stored on the passing track west of the crossing, commencing at a distance of 150 to 564 feet from the crossing. The passing track is south of the main track and the house track is north of it. In 1949, the President and Trustees of the village board of Dawson, Illinois, complained to the Illinois Commerce Commission, seeking the establishment of special protective facilities at this crossing. The Commission found that various obstructions, specifically including standing railroad cars, rendered the crossing "extra hazardous," and the railroad thereafter installed flasher lights.

The first question for consideration is whether the district court properly struck Counts IX-XII of the complaint alleging a violation of Rule 205 of General Order 138 of the Illinois Commerce Commission and Ill.Rev.Stat. (1967), ch. 111 2/3, § 77.1 The complaint charged that the cars standing on the passing track constituted "unnecessary obstructions" which materially obscured the view of oncoming trains to highway travelers in violation of Rule 205, and therefore rendered defendant liable under the statute.

Defendant's motions for directed verdicts as to the four statutory counts claimed that there was no evidence that the defendant violated the statute, or that any violation was the proximate cause of the plaintiffs' injuries or was wilful. The court's remarks at the conference on instructions reveal that these motions were granted on the theory that under the ejusdem generis canon of construction, the phrase "other unnecessary obstructions" in Rule 205 refers to permanent vegetation obstructions such as brush, shrubbery, trees, weeds, crops and the like, but not to movable freight cars. In support of the trial court's rulings, the defendant also contends that the Commission adopted Rule 205 solely to effectuate the language contained in Section 58 of the Public Utilities Act which provides in part that

"every railroad * * * shall remove from its right of way at all grade crossings within the State, all brush, shrubbery and trees for a distance of not less than five hundred (500) feet in either direction from each grade crossing." 111 2/3 Ill.Rev. Stat. § 62 (1967).

The statute also empowered the Commission to designate "extra hazardous" crossings and specify steps which the railroad should take in order to protect persons and property. Defendant does not contend that the Commission lacked the power to amplify the provisions contained in Section 58. In fact defendant concedes that Rule 205 has enlarged the class of objects specifically enumerated in the statute by the inclusion of "weeds and crops." The railroad argues, however, that by Rule 205 the Commission enlarged the statutory class only to the extent of natural objects. In our view, this interpretation of the rule is too restrictive.

Administrative regulations, like statutes, must be construed by courts, and the same rules of interpretation are applicable in both cases. II Sutherland, Statutes and Statutory Construction, § 4007, p. 280 (3d ed. 1943). Like statutes, administrative rules are to be construed to effectuate the intent of the enacting body. United States v. Miller, 303 F.2d 703 (9th Cir. 1962). To this end, courts look first to the plain language of the statute or rule and the legislative purpose behind its enactment. Where statutory language and objective appear with reasonable clarity, they are not to be overcome by resort to mechanical rules of construction, whose function is not to create doubts but to resolve them when the real issue or statutory purpose is obscure. United States v. California, 297 U.S. 175, 186, 56 S.Ct. 421, 80 L.Ed. 567; United States v. Rice, 327 U.S. 742, 66 S.Ct. 835, 90 L.Ed. 982. This admonition is as applicable to the doctrine of ejusdem generis as to other interpretive aids. The limits to the use of that doctrine have been recognized even in the construction of criminal statutes, which are ordinarily narrowly construed. Gooch v. United States, 297 U.S. 124, 56 S.Ct. 395, 80 L.Ed. 522. As the Supreme Court observed in United States v. Alpers, 338 U.S. 680, 682, 70 S.Ct. 352, 354, 94 L.Ed. 457:

"When properly applied, the rule of ejusdem generis is a useful canon of construction. But it is to be resorted to not to obscure and defeat the intent and purpose of the enacting body, but to elucidate its words and effectuate its intent. It cannot be employed to render general words meaningless. Mason v. United States, 260 U.S. 545, 554, 43 S.Ct. 200, 67 L.Ed. 396."

In the present case the clear intent of the Commerce Commission was to place an affirmative duty upon railroads to preserve visibility for highway travelers approaching crossings. Although the legislature expressed a similar intent in the statute, Rule 205 expanded the class of prohibited "obstructions" beyond that covered by Section 58. The nature of the duty imposed upon the railroads and the underlying purpose of the Rule militate against the narrow construction urged upon us. The specific references to natural obstacles indicate the breadth of the duty imposed by the Rule rather than it narrowness, for it is even more onerous to have to remove natural obstacles than to refrain from placing obstructions such as freight cars within 500 feet of crossings. The construction given to this language by the district court unreasonably constricts the scope of the Rule and virtually reads out "obstructions" in any meaningful sense. We do not feel that the Commission would be so careless and arbitrary as to require railroads to police their tracks for shrubs, trees and grass, and not give them the same responsibility with regard to man-made obstructions. Moreover, in 1949, in passing upon the complaint of the Village of Dawson requesting special protective facilities at this crossing, the Commerce Commission found that freight cars on the Constant Street house track formed

"obstructions to the view of trains approaching the Constant Street crossing from the east so that no view of said trains can be had by highway traffic approaching the crossing from the north until said trains or highway traffic are within very short distances of the crossing"

and formed

"obstructions to the view of trains approaching from the west" (emphasis supplied).

Since the plain meaning of "other unnecessary obstructions" is broad enough to include freight cars, the rule of ejusdem generis should not have been applied. Hagen v. City of Rock Island, 18 Ill.2d 174, 178-180, 163 N.E.2d 495 (1959); II Sutherland, Statutes and Statutory Construction, § 4909 (3rd ed. 1943).

Our conclusion that freight cars constitute "obstructions" within the meaning of Rule 205 does not, however, dispose of the issues presented by the application of that regulation to the present case. Rule 205 requires removal of only those obstructions which are "unnecessary." "Necessity" in the sense required by the Rule is a flexible concept. It does not demand that the object be the sine qua non of continued operation of the railroad. Rather, to fall outside the scope of the Rule, the object need only perform some useful and meaningful function contributing to the workings of the railroad. Obstructions which bear only a remote or tangential relation to railroad operation, or which are located at a particular place only by virtue of convenience, would be "unnecessary." Clearly, trees and other natural obstacles serve no aspect of railroading. Likewise, abandoned machinery, billboards and other items of dross might well fall within the same classification. In the present case, there was evidence that the freight cars stood on the passing track next to the main track for approximately two years. A third house track, previously used for storage purposes, may have remained empty on the other side. There was no evidence...

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