Still v. Norfolk Western Railway Co

Citation7 L.Ed.2d 103,368 U.S. 35,82 S.Ct. 148
Decision Date13 November 1961
Docket NumberNo. 48,48
PartiesCarl STILL, Petitioner, v. NORFOLK & WESTERN RAILWAY CO
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Sidney S. Sachs, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Joseph M. Sanders, Bluefield, W. Va., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Employers' Liability Act1 requires railroads to pay damages for personal injuries negligently inflicted upon their employees. The question this case presents is whether a railroad can escape this statutory liability by proving that an employee so injured has obtained his job by making false representations upon which the railroad rightfully relied in hiring him.

Petitioner brought this action in a West Virginia state court seeking damages for personal injuries from the respondent Norfolk & Western Railway Company, for which, as of the date of his alleged injuries, he had worked continuously except for a one-year interruption, for some six years. By special plea, the railroad set up as a defense the contention that petitioner was not 'employed' by it within the meaning of the Act2 and alleged in support of this defense: (1) that petitioner had made false and fraudulent representations in his application for employment with regard to his physical condition and other matters pertinent to his eligibility and capacity to serve as a railroad employee; (2) that petitioner would not have been hired but for these misrepresentations and the fact that they misled the railroad's hiring officials; and (3) that the very physical defects which had been fraudulently concealed from the railroad contributed to the injury upon which petitioner's action is based. Petitioner's demurrer to this plea was overruled and evidence by both parties was presented to a jury. When all the evidence was in, however, the trial court directed the jury to bring in a verdict for the defendant on the ground that the undisputed evidence showed that the railroad had been deceived into hiring petitioner by petitioner's fraudulent misrepresentations as to his health and that these misrepresentations had a 'direct causal connection' with the injuries upon which petitioner's action is based.

Throughout the proceedings in the trial court, petitioner contended that no verdict should be directed against him on the grounds, among others: (1) that the allegations of fraud set up in the railroad's special plea were not sufficient in law to state a defense under the Act; and (2) that even if the plea were sufficient in law, it rested upon questions of fact which should be submitted to the jury. On writ of error, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals refused to overturn the trial court's action on either of these two grounds. Though we recognized that the case might possibly be disposed of on the second of these grounds, we granted certiorari to consider the important question raised by petitioner's first ground concerning the proper interpretation, scope and application of the Federal Employers' Liability Act. 3

The railroad's primary contention, which was accepted as the principal basis of the action of the trial court, is that the sufficiency in law of its fraud defense was established by this Court's decision in Minneapolis, St. Paul & S. Ste. Marie R. Co. v. Rock.4 That case involved the railroad's liability for the negligent injury of one Joe Rock, who had obtained his employment by a whole series of fraudulent misrepresentations. Rock had originally applied for a job in his own name and had been rejected when his physical condition was found to be such that he did not meet the railroad's requirements. Several days later, he reapplied for the same job and, in order to conceal the fact that he had previously been refused employment because of his health, represented himself to be 'John Rock,' an apparently fictitious name he assumed for the purpose. He next arranged to have one Lenhart pose as 'John Rock' and take the railroad's physical examination. When Lenhart passed the physical, the railroad hired Joe Rock on the mistaken belief that he was 'John Rock' and that he had Lenhart's physical condition. On this unusual combination of facts, this Court held that Rock could not recover damages against the railroad under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, saying: 'Right to recover may not justify or reasonably be rested on a foundation so abhorrent to public policy.' 5

The railroad here seeks to bring itself within the Rock decision by arguing that Rock established the principle that any false representation which deceives the employer and results in a railroad worker's getting a job he would not otherwise have obtained is sufficient to bar the worker from recovering the damages Congress has provided for railroad workers negligently injured in the honest performance of their duties under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. Although there is some language in the Rock opinion which might lend itself to such an interpretation, we think it plain that no such rule was ever intended. Certainly that was not the contemporaneous understanding of Rock among other courts as is plainly shown by the statements of Judge Nordbye when that interpretation of Rock was urged upon him only one year later at the trial of Minneapolis, St. Paul & S. Ste. Marie R. Co. v. Borum: 'It is inconceivable to this court that Justice Butler intended to hold in the Rock case that every fraudulent violation of the rules framed for maintaining a certain standard of safety and efficiency of the employees would render such employment void and deny the defrauding employee any rights under the act. It seems quite clear that any fraud practiced by the plaintiff herein at the most rendered the contract voidable.'6 And when the Borum case came here, this Court, although urged to do so, itself refused to extend Rock in any such manner. 7 The decision in Borum, considered in the light of the facts there involved, reflects clearly the contemporaneously understood limitations upon the Rock approach and the reluctance of this Court to extend the vague notions of public policy upon which that case rested to new factual situations.

Borum, who was forty-nine at the time, wanted a job with a railroad that had, in the interest of promoting safety and efficiency in its operations, adopted a rule against hiring men over forty-five. Knowing this, he told the railroad employment officials that he was only thirty-eight and, by this deliberate misrepresentation, obtained a job he would not otherwise have been given. Although Borum took the railroad's required physical examination, it apparently knew nothing of Borum's deception about his age until some seven years later, after he had lost both of his legs in an accident caused by the railroad's negligence and had filed suit against it for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. Just before trial of this case, a lastminute investigation turned up Borum's real age and the railroad sought to rely upon this fact to escape its liability under the Act. This Court unanimously upheld the Minnesota courts' determination that Borum had a right to recover despite his admittedly fraudulent and material misrepresentation of his age, brushing aside the railroad's attempted reliance upon Rock on the ground 'that the facts found, when taken in connection with those shown by uncontradicted evidence, are not sufficient to bring this case within the rule applied in Minneapolis, St. P. & S.S.M. Ry. Co. v. Rock, supra, or the reasons upon which that decision rests.'8

In support of this conclusion, the Court in Borum pointed to a number of factual differences with the Rock case. The first mentioned, and apparently the most important of these in the mind of the Court, was the fact that Rock, unlike Borum, had obtained his employment as an 'impostor' by presenting himself to the railroad under an assumed named after his initial application in his own name had been rejected. Secondly, the Court pointed to the fact that Rock, again unlike Borum, had never been approved as physically fit for employment by the railroad's examining surgeon. Finally, the Court made reference to the fact that under the railroad's own rules, it could not have discharged Borum for his misrepresentation because more than thirty days had passed since his original provisional employment and the rules made this action final unless changed within that period. But no one of these facts, as the Court recognized, was sufficient to justify a distinction between Rock and Borum based upon an acceptable reconciling principle. In both cases, the worker had been guilty of making a material, false and fraudulent representation without which he would not have been employed. And if such a method of obtaining employment was, as intimated in Rock, to be considered so 'abhorrent to public policy' that the normal distinction between 'void' and 'voidable' contracts was to be ignored,9 the mere existence of a rail- road rule limiting the time for discharge without cause could not, of course, have overridden that policy. The Court therefore, as shown above, based its decision upholding Borum's right to recover upon all of the factual distinctions between his case and that of Rock and held merely that Rock would not be extended to cover these new facts.

This factual distinction of Rock, though sufficient to show the non-existence of any broad principle that material misrepresentations relied upon by a railroad in hiring bar recovery under the Act, proved completely unsatisfactory to establish affirmatively an intelligible guide by which lower courts could decide what misrepresentations were so 'abhorrent to public policy' as to compel a forfeiture of the worker's right to recover under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. And since Borum, the lower federal courts and state courts have been forced to struggle with the baffling problem of how much and what kinds of fraud are sufficiently...

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