Urie v. Thompson

Decision Date31 May 1949
Docket NumberNo. 129,129
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 163-165 intentionally omitted] Mr. Guy W. Green Jr., Kansas City, Mo., for petitioner.

Mr. Lyman J. Bishop, Belton, Mo., for respondent.

Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The primary question is whether the coverage of the Federal Employers' Liability Act and the Boiler Inspection Act1 includes injuries in the nature of occupational disease, here silicosis, or is confined exclusively to injuries inflicted by accident. After having been twice before the Supreme Court of Missouri, the case is here on certiorari, 335 U.S. 809, 69 S.Ct. 41, for review of its final decision on the second appeal that recovery may not be had for other than accidental injuries. A statement of the course taken by the proceedings in the state courts, as well as of the facts, becomes necessary for resolving the issues presented.

In 1941 petitioner Tom Urie filed suit under the Federal Employers' Liabili y Act against respondent Thompson, trustee of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. According to petitioner's allegations, he had been employed as a fireman on steam locomotives of the interstate Missouri Pacific for roughly thirty years. In 1940 he had been forced to cease work by a pulmonary disease diagnosed as silicosis. This permanently disabling affliction had been caused by continuous inhalation of silica dust blown or sucked into the cabs of the locomotives on which he had worked. The injurious concentration of silica dust in the air breathed by petitioner arose from the railroad's use in its locomotives' sanding boxes of sand materials containing 80 to 90 per cent of silica or silicon dioxide and the emission by the locomotives' faultily adjusted 'sanders'2 of such sand materials in excessive amounts beyond those needed to provide traction for locomotive wheels. Respondent Thompson, trustee of the railroad since 1933, 'knew, or by the exercise of due care should have known,' of the danger of silicosis arising from the conditions of petitioner's employment.3

The trial court sustained respondent's demurrer to the complaint. On appeal the Missouri Supreme Court held that the action could not be maintained by virtue of the Federal Employers' Liability Act alone, for the reason that respondent could not have 'anticipated plaintiff's injury, and * * * therefore * * * the petition does not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action for negligence under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.' 352 Mo. 211, 219, 176 S.W.2d 471, 475. The court felt, however, that the claimed malfunctioning of the locomotives' sanders was in substance an allegation of breach of § 2 of the Boiler Inspection Act and that, since proof of breach of the latter Act would support a recovery under the Federal Employers' Liability Act without regard to respondent's negligence, Lilly v. Grand Trunk Western R. Co., 317 U.S. 481, 485 486, 63 S.Ct. 347, 350—351, 87 L.Ed. 411; petitioner had stated a cause of action. Furthermore, the court held that the Federal Employers' Liability Act's three-year statute of limitations, 45 U.S.C. § 56, 45 U.S.C.A. § 56, did not bar petitioner's claim since his 'cause of action accrued in May, 1940, when he became incapacitated * * *.' 352 Mo. at page 222, 176 S.W.2d at page 477. Accordingly the court reversed the judgment and remanded the cause for trial.

On remand petitioner amended his complaint to charge specifically violations of the Boiler Inspection Act. Section 2 of that Act, as amended, makes it 'unlawful for any carrier to use or permit to be used on its line and locomotive unless said locomotive, its boiler, tender, and all parts and appurtenances thereof are in proper condition and safe to operate in the service to which the same are put, that the same may be employed in the active service of such carrier without unnecessary peril to life or limb * * *.' 45 U.S.C. § 23, 45 U.S.C.A. § 23.4 The violations alleged were (1) that the sanders were broken or faultily adjusted so as to release too much sand and (2) that the locomotive decks and cabs were in a bad state of repair admitting dust through various cracks and openings in the cab's floor and elsewhere which ought to have been sealed off.

The case was tried to a jury, under instructions that negligence was not in issue and that petitioner should prevail if he proved that he had contracted silicosis by reason of respondent's breach of an 'absolute and continuing duty to have such locomotive engines and all their parts and appurtenances thereof, in proper condition and safe to operate * * * without unnecessary peril to the life of Tom Urie * * *.' The jury found for petitioner in the amount of $30,000.

Upon respondent's appeal the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the judgment entered on this verdict. 357 Mo. 738, 210 S.W.2d 98. Noting that on the former review it did not 'treat with a contention that 'silicosis' is not an evil at which the Act is aimed,' id., 357 Mo. at page 746, 210 S.W.2d at page 102, the court concluded that the Boiler Inspection Act 'is aimed at promoting safety from accidental injury, as distinguished from injury due to the gradual inhalation of harmful dusts.' Id., 357 Mo. at page 749, 210 S.W.2d at page 105. It was to review the state supreme court's successive constructions of the Federal Employers' Liability and Bailer Inspection Acts that our writ was issued.


Two preliminary contentions first engage our attention. We are met at the outset by the question whether, without regard to the legal sufficiency of petitioner's claim under either Act, that claim is barred as to both Acts by operation of the Federal Employers' Liability Act's statute of limitations.

Urie filed suit on November 25, 1941. Under the terms of the then prevailing three-year statute of limitations,5 the court could not entertain the claim if Urie's 'cause of action accrued' before November 25, 1938. Respondent contends that Urie, having been exposed to silica dust since approximately 1910, must unwittingly have contracted silicosis long before 1938, and hence that his 'cause of action' must be deemed to have 'accrued' longer than three years before the institution of this action. Alternatively it may be argued that each inhalation of silica dust was a separate tort giving rise to a fresh 'cause of action,' and that Urie is therefore limited to a claim for inhalations between November 25, 1938, and the spring day in 1940 when he became incapacitated.6

In our view, however, neither of the outlined constructions of the statute of limitations can be sustained. For, if we assume that Congress intended to include occupational diseases in the category of injuries compensable under the Federal Employers' Liability and Boiler Inspection Acts, such mechanical analysis of the 'accrual' of petitioner's injury—whether breath by breath, or at one unrecorded moment in the progress of the disease—can only serve to thwart the congressional purpose.

If Urie were held barred from prosecuting this action because he must be said, as a matter of law, to have contracted silicosis prior to November 25, 1938, it would be clear that the federal legislation afforded Urie only a delusive remedy. It would mean that at some past moment in time, unknown and inherently unkn wable even in retrospect, Urie was charged with knowledge of the slow and tragic disintegration of his lungs; under this view Urie's failure to diagnose within the applicable statute of limitations a disease whose symptoms had not yet obtruded on his consciousness would constitute waiver of his right to compensation at the ultimate day of discovery and disability.

Nor can we accept the theory that each intake of dusty breath is a fresh 'cause of action.' In the present case, for example, application of such a rule would, arguably, limit petitioner's damages to that aggravation of his progressive injury traceable to the last eighteen months of his employment. Moreover petitioner would have been wholly barred from suit had he left the railroad, or merely been transferred to work involving no exposure to silica dust, more than three years before discovering the disease with which he was afflicted.7

We do not think the humane legislative plan intended such consequences to attach to blameless ignorance. Nor do we think those consequences can be reconciled with the traditional purposes of statutes of limitations, which conventionally require the assertion of claims within a specified period of time after notice of the invasion of legal rights. The record before us is clear that Urie became too ill to work in May of 1940 and that diagnosis of his condition was accomplished in the following weeks. There is no suggestion that Urie should have known he had silicosis at any earlier date. 'It follows that no specific date of contact with the substance can be charged with being the date of injury, inasmuch as the injurious consequences of the exposure are the product of a period of time rather than a point of time; consequently the afflicted employee can be held to be 'injured' only when the accumulated effects of the deleterious substance manifest themselves * * *.' Associated Indemnity Corp. v. Industrial Accident Commission, 124 Cal.App. 378, 381, 12 P.2d 1075, 1076. The quoted language, used in a state workmen's compensation case, seems to us applicable in every relevant particular to the construction of the federal statute of limitations with which we are here concerned. Accordingly we agree with the view expressed by the Missouri Supreme Court on the first appeal of this case, that Urie's claim, if otherwise maintainable, is not barred by the statute of limitations.8

We may readily dispose of another preliminary question concerning the issues which are now properly before us. Respondent argues, somewhat surprisingly, that the sufficiency of petitioner's original claim...

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