Northern Pacific R. Co. v. Everett
152 U.S. 107 (1894)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Northern Pacific R. Co. v. Everett, 152 U.S. 107 (1894)

Northern Pacific Railroad Company v. Everett

No. 188

Submitted December 21, 1893

Decided March 5, 1894

152 U.S. 107

Syllabus

A switchman in the employ of a railroad company was directed, in the line of his regular duty, to connect together two cars, one of which was loaded with bridge timbers. The timbers were unusually and dangerously loaded, extending so far over the end of the car as to make the coupling dangerous. The switchman had no notice or knowledge of this fact, and in making the coupling was very severely injured. To an action brought to recover damages for the injury, the railroad company pleaded that the injuries were the result of the switchman's negligence. and not of the negligence of the company, and on the trial asked to have the jury instructed to return a verdict for defendant. The court declined, and instructed the jury on this point, in effect, that they were to find whether the car was or was not properly loaded, and whether the plaintiff, by the exercise of proper diligence, could or could not have discovered the projecting timber before the cars came together and in time

Page 152 U. S. 108

to avoid the danger, and that if he could not, by the exercise of such diligence, have so discovered it, then he was entitled to recover. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff. Held that as there was no conclusive evidence of a want of due care on the part of the switchman in not observing the projecting timber while in discharge of his duty and while his attention was directed to his work, there was no error or unfairness in these instructions.

William J. Everett brought an action in the District Court of the Sixth Judicial Circuit of the Territory of Dakota on November 13, 1889, against the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, seeking to recover from it the sum of thirty thousand dollars as damages for injuries received by him in coupling cars owned and controlled by the company, alleging that he had received such injuries while in the employ of the company as a yard switchman in its yards at Jamestown, Dakota Territory, and while there engaged in the performance of his regular duties. The accident had happened, as he stated in his complaint, under the following circumstances: on July 6, 1889, he was at work in the yard, and was ordered by the yard foreman to couple together a car loaded with bridge timbers and a boxcar which was standing upon a side track. The car bearing the timbers was moved by a switch engine. This car was loaded in an unusual and dangerous manner in that the timbers extended so far beyond each end of the car as to leave insufficient space for coupling with safety. The plaintiff had, however, no notice or knowledge of this fact. He attempted to carry out the orders which he had received, and in so doing his head was caught between the boxcar and the end of a heavy timber which projected over the end of the other car a distance of twenty-two inches. His injuries thus received were of a serious and permanent character, and consisted in the impairment not only of his physical powers and senses, but also of his mental faculties.

The defendant admitted, in its answer, its ownership and control of the cars mentioned, but denied generally all the other averments of the complaint upon which were founded the plaintiff's alleged right to a recovery from it, and averred that the injuries, if any, received by the plaintiff were the result of his own negligence, and not of that of the defendant.

Page 152 U. S. 109

After the deposition on behalf of the plaintiff of a witness residing in the State of Washington had been taken in pursuance of a commission to take testimony issued out of the said territorial court, the portion of the territory in which the action was pending became a part of the State of North Dakota, and before further proceedings were had in the case, it was removed into the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of North Dakota, in which court a trial was had before the court and a jury.

On the trial, after all the evidence for both parties had been heard, the defendant moved the court to instruct the jury to return a verdict for the defendant for the reason that the evidence in the case would not warrant a verdict for the plaintiff. The court refused to so instruct the jury, and the defendant excepted to this ruling.

The court instructed the jury as follows:

"The fact that the plaintiff was injured in an effort to couple defendant's cars at the time and place mentioned has not, on the trial, been contested, but the defendant says the plaintiff's injury was the result of his own negligence or that his own negligence contributed to his injury, and if this answer of the defendant is true, it is a complete defense to this action."

"To entitle the plaintiff to a verdict, he must satisfy you by a preponderance of the evidence of these two principal facts: first, that his injury was the result of the negligence of the railroad company, and second that his own neglect was not the occasion of the injury, and did not in any manner contribute to it. If the plaintiff's injury resulted from his own negligence, or if his own negligence contributed to his injury, he cannot recover."

"The particular act which the plaintiff alleges constitutes the neglect on the part of the defendant which resulted in his injury is that the flat car, which was in motion and which he was ordered to couple to a boxcar standing on the track, was loaded with lumber which projected twenty-two inches, or about that distance, over the end of the car where the coupling was to be made. "

Page 152 U. S. 110

"The first question for you to determine is was this an unusual or improper or negligent manner of loading lumber on a flat car? If you answer this question in the negative, you need inquire no further, but will return a verdict for the defendant."

"If you answer this question in the affirmative, you will then inquire whether such negligent loading of the lumber on the car was the cause of the plaintiff's injury, unmixed with any negligence on his part, and if you find that it was, your verdict will be for the plaintiff."

"The plaintiff was bound to exercise care and diligence in his employment of coupling cars. He was bound to use all his senses as actively and intelligently as any prudent man, having a knowledge of the hazardous character of his business, would have done under like circumstance. The business is a dangerous one, and imposed on him the duty of exercising great care and caution."

"If the plaintiff saw that the lumber projected over the end of the car before he attempted the coupling, or if he could have seen it if he had exercised great care and diligence, which, under the circumstances, it was incumbent upon him to exercise, then he can claim nothing on account of the injury resulting from such projecting lumber, and the injury must be attributed to his own negligence."

"If you find the lumber was negligently loaded -- that is, in an unusual and dangerous manner -- and that this fact was unknown to the plaintiff, then, when the plaintiff was ordered to couple the cars, he had a right to assume that the car was properly loaded and act on that assumption; but if, before the peril was encountered, he discovered the projecting lumber, he should have desisted from any effort to make the coupling, or should have made it in some manner that would not have subjected him to injury, if it was practicable for him to do so and if by the exercise of proper diligence he might have discovered the projecting lumber before the accident, and in time to avoid it, he cannot recover."

The defendant objected to the last paragraph of the foregoing instructions, and moved that it be withdrawn. The motion was denied, to which ruling of the court the defendant

Page 152 U. S. 111

excepted. The case was then submitted to the jury, which rendered a verdict for the plaintiff, and awarded him damages in the sum of $7,000. Judgment in accordance with the verdict was entered on April 25, 1890. The defendant thereupon sued out a writ of error from this Court.

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