Beutler v. Grand Trunk Junction Ry. Co.
224 U.S. 85 (1912)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Beutler v. Grand Trunk Junction Ry. Co., 224 U.S. 85 (1912)

Beutler v. Grand Trunk Junction Railway Company

No. 14

Submitted March 6, 191

Decided March 18, 1912

224 U.S. 85

CERTIFICATE FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Courts may not abolish an established rule of law upon personal notions of what is expedient, and so as to the fellow servant doctrine, even if it be, as it has been called, a bad exception to a bad rule.

In cases tried in the United States courts, the court must follow its understanding of the common law when no settled rule of property intervenes.

The fellow servant rule applies where the character of their respective occupation brings the people engaged in them into necessary and frequent contact even if they have no personal relation.

An employee of a railroad company engaged in work in the repair yard is a fellow servant of the crew of a switching engine of the same company engaged in running cars needing repairs into the yard.

Although the question of fellow servant may be left to the jury in the state court, the question whether the facts do or do not constitute a ground of liability is one of law; this Court accordingly answers a question certified by the circuit court of appeals as to whether employee in this case were fellow servants.

If a law is bad, the legislature, and not juries, must change it.

The facts, which involve the determination of whether certain classes of employees of railroad companies are fellow servants, are stated in the opinion.

Page 224 U. S. 88

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The deceased, Fetta, was at work in the repair yard of a railroad; other servants of the road, an engine and switching crew, ran a car needing repair from the general tracks into the special yard, and, by their negligence, killed him. There was no further relation between the parties than these facts disclose, and the question is certified whether they were fellow servants within the rule that would exempt the railroad from liability in that case.

The doctrine as to fellow servants may be, as it has been called, a bad exception to a bad rule, but it is established, and it is not open to courts to do away with it upon their personal notions of what is expedient. So it has been decided that, in cases tried in the United States courts, we must follow our own understanding of the common law when no settled rule of property intervenes. Kuhn v. Fairmont Coal Co.,215 U. S. 349; Northern Pacific R. Co. v. Hambly,154 U. S. 349, 154 U. S. 360.

The precedents in this Court carry the doctrine as far as it is necessary to carry it in this case to show that the two persons concerned were engaged in a common employment. No testimony can shake the obvious fact that the character of their respective occupations brought the people engaged in them into necessary and frequent contact, although they may have had no personal relations. Every time that a car was to be repaired, it had to be switched into the repair yard. There is no room for the exception to the rule that exists where the negligence consists in the undisclosed failure to furnish a safe place to work in -- an exception that perhaps has been pushed to an extreme in the effort to limit the rule. Santa Fe Pacific R. Co. v. Holmes,202 U. S. 438; McCabe & Steen Construction Co. v. Wilson,209 U. S. 275. The head of the switching crew and the deceased were as

Page 224 U. S. 89

clearly fellow servants as the section hand and engineer in Texas & Pacific Railway Co. v. Bourman,212 U. S. 536; Northern Pacific R. Co. v. Hambly,154 U. S. 349. It may be that, in the state court, the question would be left to the jury, Gathman v. Chicago, 236 Ill. 9; Indiana & Iowa. R. Co. v. Otstot, 212 Ill. 429, but whether certain facts do or do not constitute a ground of liability is in its nature a question of law. To leave it uncertain is to leave the law uncertain. If the law is bad, the legislature, not juries, must make a change. We answer the certificate, Yes.

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