Seaboard Air Line Ry. v. Horton
233 U.S. 492 (1914)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Seaboard Air Line Ry. v. Horton, 233 U.S. 492 (1914)

Seaboard Air Line Railway v. Horton

No. 691

Argued February 27, 1914

Decided April 27, 1914

233 U.S. 492

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT

OF THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA

Syllabus

A writ of error in terms returnable within thirty days from the date thereof substantially complies with the return day provision in clause 5 of Rule 8 of this Court.

Where the state court of last resort sustained the trial court in overruling contentions made by the plaintiff in error, asserting a construction of the Employers' Liability Act which, if acceded to, would have resulted in a verdict in his favor, this Court has jurisdiction under § 237, Judicial Code.

Since Congress, by the Employers' Liability Act of 1908, took control of the liability of carriers engaged in interstate transportation by rail to employees injured while engaged in interstate commerce, all state laws upon the subject have been superseded. Second Employers' Liability Cases,223 U. S. 1, 223 U. S. 55.

Whatever may have been the common law rule theretofore, Congress, in enacting the Employers' Liability Act, intended to, and did, base the action on negligence only, and excluded responsibility of the carrier to its employees for defects and insufficiencies not attributable to negligence.

The provision diminishing liability of the carrier in case of contributory negligence on the part of the injured employee except where there has been a violation by the carrier of any statute enacted for the safety of employees relates to federal statutes only, and not to state statutes.

The Employers' Liability Act having expressly eliminated the defense of assumption of risk in certain specified cases, the intent of Congress is plain that in all other cases such assumption shall have its former effect as a bar to an action by the injured employee.

When the employee knows of a defect in the appliances used by him and appreciates the resulting danger and continues in the employment without objection, or without obtaining from the employer an assurance of reparation, he assumes the risk even though it may arise from the employer's breach of duty.

Where there is promise of reparation by the employer, the continuing on duty by the employee does not amount to assumption of risk unless the danger be so imminent that no ordinarily prudent man would rely on such promise.

Page 233 U. S. 493

Under the Employers' Liability Act, a defect in an appliance which is not covered by any of the Federal Safety Acts does not leave the employer absolutely responsible for the defect, but the common law rule as to assumption of risk applies, and so held as to a defect in a water gauge of which the engineer had knowledge before the accident resulting therefrom.

162 N.C. 77 reversed.

The facts, which involve the construction of the Federal Employers' Liability Acts of 1908 and 1910 and the effect of those statutes on state laws in regard to liability of employers, are stated in the opinion.

Page 233 U. S. 495

MR. JUSTICE PITNEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

Horton sued the Seaboard Air Line Railway in the Superior Court of Wake County, North Carolina, to recover damages for personal injuries sustained by him while in defendant's employ as a locomotive engineer. The action was brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act of April 22, 1908, 35 Stat. 65, c. 149, as amended April 5, 1910, 36 Stat. 291, c. 143. In the complaint it was sufficiently averred that defendant was a corporation operating a line of railway as a common carrier in interstate commerce, and that plaintiff, at the time he was injured, was employed by defendant in such commerce. These facts were not in issue at the trial.

As to the circumstances of the occurrence of the injury, plaintiff's evidence tended to show that, on July 27, 1910, defendant's locomotive engine No. 752 was placed in his charge; that it was equipped with a Buckner water gauge, a device attached to the boiler head for the purpose of showing the level of the water in the boiler, and consisting of a brass frame or case enclosing a thin glass tube which communicated with the boiler above and below in such manner that the tube received water and steam direct from the boiler and under the full boiler pressure. In order to shield the engineer from injury in case of the bursting of the tube, a piece of ordinary glass, 2 or 3 inches wide, 8 or 9 inches long, and about half an inch thick, known as a guard glass, should have been provided, this being a part of the regular equipment of the Buckner water gauge. There were slots for receiving the guard glass and holding it in position in front of the water tube. At each end of the tube, valves were provided for the purpose of disconnecting

Page 233 U. S. 496

it from the boiler. As an alternative, but probably less convenient, method of determining the level of the water in the boiler, ordinary gauge cocks were provided.

Plaintiff was an experienced locomotive engineer, and, according to his own testimony, was fully aware of the function of the guard glass and of its importance to his safety. He testified that, when he took the engine out on his first trip on July 27th, he observed that the guard glass was missing; that, on his return upon the following day he reported this to defendant's roundhouse foreman, to whom reports of such defects were properly made, and asked him for a guard glass; that the foreman stated there were none in stock at that place, and it would be necessary to send to a distance to get one; that he would do this, and that plaintiff should meanwhile run the engine without one, and that, having ineffectually endeavored to get a guard glass from another source, plaintiff proceeded to drive the engine with the use of the unguarded water gauge until August 4th, when the glass exploded and flying fragments struck him in the face, causing the injuries upon which his claim for damages was based.

Defendant's evidence tended to show that, when the engine was placed in plaintiff's charge on July 27th, the water glass was in good condition, with a guard glass in place; that the gauge cocks were likewise in good working order; that it was the duty of a locomotive engineer to inspect his engine and know that it was in proper order before taking it out, and if not in proper order, to make a written report to the roundhouse foreman, specifying the defects; that, if anything should happen to the water glass, it was the engineer's duty to close the valves so as to exclude the steam pressure from it, and run the engine with the gauge cocks, and that these were sufficient for the purpose, and that plaintiff made repeated reports in writing between July 27 and the time of his injury, mentioning other things needed about his engine, but making no mention of the

Page 233 U. S. 497

water gauge or the guard glass. The fireman testified specifically that, when plaintiff took charge of the engine on the morning of the 27th, the water glass had the shield or guard in front of it, but that it was smoky, so that one could not see through it; that he, the fireman, in the presence of plaintiff, removed the guard glass in order to clean it, and that, in plaintiff's presence, it became broken. The roundhouse foreman specifically denied plaintiff's testimony about the complaint and the promise of reparation.

Under instructions presently to be noticed, the case was submitted to the jury upon three issues, to which responses were made as follows:

(1) Was plaintiff injured by defendant's negligence? Answer, Yes.

(2) If so, did plaintiff assume the risk of injury? Answer, No.

(3) Did plaintiff by his own negligence contribute to his injury? Answer, Yes.

The jury also assessed substantial damages, for which judgment was rendered by the trial court, and upon appeal, the supreme court affirmed the judgment, 162 N.C. 424. The case comes here, under § 237, Judicial Code, upon questions arising out of instructions given and refused to be given to the jury as to the nature of the duty of the employer and the rules respecting assumption of risk and contributory negligence under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.

There is a motion to dismiss upon the ground that no return day is specified in the writ of error or citation. Carroll v. Dorsey (1857), 20 How. 204, 61 U. S. 207, and Sea v. Connecticut Mutual Life Ins. Co. (1880), 154 U.S. 659, are relied upon. These decisions were based upon § 22 of the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789, 1 Stat. 84, c. 20, which was held to require a certain return day to be specified in the writ of error. Accordingly, General Rule

Page 233 U. S. 498

33, promulgated December Terms 1867 (6 Wall. vi), afterwards found as Clause 5 of Rule 8 of the revised rules promulgated January 7, 1884 (108 U.S. 577), required that the writ of error and citation should be returnable on the first day of the term in cases where final judgment was rendered more than thirty days before that day, and on the third Monday of the term in cases where judgment was rendered less than thirty days before the first day. Blatchf, U.S.Ct.Rules 77. But, under the authority conferred by Rev.Stat. § 917, the Court, on January 26, 1891, amended Clause 5 of Rule 8 so as to read:

"All appeals, writs of error, and citations must be made returnable not exceeding thirty days from the day of signing the citation, whether the return day fall in vacation or in term time, and be served before the return day,"

137 U.S. 710. And in the present rule as promulgated December 22, 1911 (222 U.S. Appendix, p. 14), the same language is retained, with an exception extending the time to sixty days in writs of error and appeals from the western states, and Alaska, Hawaii, and Porto Rico, and to one hundred twenty days as to the Philippine Islands. An extension of the time in favor of the more distant states and territories was first introduced as Clause 3 of original Rule 63, promulgated at December Term, 1853 (16 How. ix), and has been continued, with amendments, until the present time (21 How. viii.; 2 Wall. viii.; 108 U.S. 578). It has, however, no bearing upon the form of the writ or citation, aside from the limit of time that may be allowed between date and return.

The present writ of error and citation were dated the fourth day of August, 1913, and in terms were returnable "within thirty days from the date hereof." This form has been usually employed, with the approval of the Court, since the amendment of the rule made in 1891, as mentioned. It is a substantial compliance with the present

Page 233 U. S. 499

rule, and tends to avoid errors that otherwise might be made in inserting a day certain as a return day.

This motion must therefore be denied.

A second motion to dismiss, based upon grounds still more technical, and which need not be particularly stated, will likewise be denied.

There is a further motion to dismiss for want of jurisdiction, upon the ground that no right, privilege, or immunity under the Employers' Liability Act was especially set up or claimed in the state court of last resort and by that court denied. But since that court sustained the trial court in overruling certain contentions made by plaintiff in error asserting a construction of the act which, if acceded to, would presumably have produced a verdict in its favor, and consequent immunity from the action, this motion must be denied upon the authority of St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Ry. v. McWhirter,229 U. S. 265.

Coming now to the merits, we need consider only certain assignments of error that are based upon exceptions to the action of the trial judge in giving and refusing to give instructions relating to the issues of defendant's negligence, the assumption of risk, and contributory negligence.

At the outset, we observe that the judge evidently misapprehended the effect of the federal act upon state legislation. Thus, the jury was told that plaintiff had brought the action under the federal statute;

"And where Congress enacts a law within the limits of its power, that law should be enforced uniformly throughout the entire United States. If it is in conflict with the state law, the state law is superseded. But where there is no conflict expressed by the statute of the United States, then the rule of the state prevails."

This, of course, in the absence of a specific statement of the applicable rule of the state law, might be treated as academic. But the theory

Page 233 U. S. 500

was carried into the specific instructions, to the extent that, upon the questions of the employer's duty and the assumption of risk by the employee, the charge was modeled rather upon the North Carolina statute than upon the act of Congress. By § 2646, Nor.Car. Revisal of 1905,

"Any servant or employee of any railroad company operating in this state who shall suffer injury to his person, or the personal representative of any such servant or employee who shall have suffered death in the course of his services or employment with such company by the negligence, carelessness, or incompetence of any other servant, employee, or agent of the company, or by any defect in the machinery, ways, or appliances of the company, shall be entitled to maintain an action against such company. Any contract or agreement, expressed or implied, made by any employee of such company to waive the benefit of this section shall be null and void."

Upon the issue of defendant's negligence, the trial court charged the jury as follows:

"It is the duty of the defendant to provide a reasonably safe place for the plaintiff to work, and to furnish him with reasonably safe appliances with which to do his work."

And in various other forms, the notion was expressed that the duty of defendant was absolute with respect to the safety of the place of work and of the appliances for the work. Thus:

"If you find from the evidence that it [the locomotive engine] was turned over to him without the guard, and if you further find from the evidence that the guard was a proper safety provision for the use of that gauge, and that it was unsafe without it, then the defendant did not furnish him a safe place and a safe appliance to do his work, and if it remained in that condition it was continuing negligence on the part of the defendant, and if he was injured in consequence thereof, if you so find by the greater weight of the evidence, you should answer the first issue, 'Yes.' "

Page 233 U. S. 501

In these instructions, the trial judge evidently adopted the same measure of responsibility respecting the character and safe condition of the place of work, and the appliances for the doing of the work, that is prescribed by the local statute. But it is settled that, since Congress, by the Act of 1908, took possession of the field of the employer's liability to employees in interstate transportation by rail, all state laws upon the subject are superseded. Second Employers' Liability Cases,223 U. S. 1, 223 U. S. 55.

The act is quoted in full in that case at p. 223 U. S. 6. By its first section, a right of action is conferred (under conditions specified) for injury or death of the employee

"resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier, or by reason of any defect or insufficiency, due to its negligence, in its cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track, roadbed, works, boats, wharves, or other equipment."

This clause has two branches -- the one covering the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of the carrier, which has the effect of abolishing in this class of cases the common law rule that exempted the employer from responsibility for the negligence of a fellow employee of the plaintiff, and the other relating to defects and insufficiencies in the cars, engines, appliances, etc. But plainly, with respect to the latter as well as the former ground of liability, it was the intention of Congress to base the action upon negligence only, and to exclude responsibility of the carrier to its employees for defects and insufficiencies not attributable to negligence. The common law rule is that an employer is not a guarantor of the safety of the place of work or of the machinery and appliances of the work; the extent of its duty to its employees is to see that ordinary care and prudence are exercised, to the end that the place in which the work is to be performed and the tools and appliances of the work

Page 233 U. S. 502

may be safe for the workmen. Hough v. Railway Co.,100 U. S. 213, 100 U. S. 217; Washington & Georgetown Railroad Co. v. McDade,135 U. S. 554, 135 U. S. 570; Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf R. Co. v. McDade,191 U. S. 64, 191 U. S. 67. To hold that, under the statute, the railroad company is liable for the injury or death of an employee resulting from any defect or insufficiency in its cars, engines, appliances, etc., however caused, is to take from the act the words "due to its negligence." The plain effect of these words is to condition the liability upon negligence, and had there been doubt before as to the common law rule, certainly the act now limits the responsibility of the company as indicated. The instructions above quoted imposed upon the employer an absolute responsibility for the safe condition of the appliances of the work, instead of limiting the responsibility to the exercise of reasonable care. In effect, the jury was instructed that the absence of the guard glass was conclusive evidence of defendant's negligence. In this there was error.

The questions more particularly discussed, however, and upon which the decision seems to have turned in the Supreme Court of North Carolina, pertain to the issues of assumption of risk and contributory negligence. By § 3 of the Act of 1908, it is declared that

"the fact that the employee may have been guilty of contributory negligence shall not bar a recovery, but the damages shall be diminished by the jury in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to such employee: Provided, that no such employee who may be injured or killed shall be held to have been guilty of contributory negligence in any case where the violation by such common carrier of any statute enacted for the safety of employees contributed to the injury or death of such employee."

And by § 4,

"Such employee shall not be held to have assumed the risks of his employment in any case where the violation by such common carrier of any statute enacted for

Page 233 U. S. 503

the safety of employees contributed to the injury or death of such employee."

By the phrase "any statute enacted for the safety of employees," Congress evidently intended federal statutes, such as the Safety Appliance Acts, March 2, 1893, 27 Stat. 531, c. 196; March 2, 1903, 32 Stat. 943, c. 976; April 14, 1910, 36 Stat. 298, c. 160; February 17, 1911 36 Stat. 913, c. 103, and the Hours of Service Act, February 4, 1907, 34 Stat. 1415, c. 2939. For it is not to be conceived that, in enacting a general law for establishing and enforcing the responsibility of common carriers by railroad to their employees in interstate commerce, Congress intended to permit the legislatures of the several states to determine the effect of contributory negligence and assumption of risk by enacting statutes for the safety of employees, since this would in effect relegate to state control two of the essential factors that determine the responsibility of the employer.

It seems to us that § 4, in eliminating the defense of assumption of risk in the cases indicated, quite plainly evidences the legislative intent that, in all other cases, such assumption shall have its former effect as a complete bar to the action. And, taking §§ 3 and 4 together, there is no doubt that Congress recognized the distinction between contributory negligence and assumption of risk, for, while it is declared that neither of these shall avail the carrier in cases where the violation of a statute has contributed to the injury or death of the employee, there is, with respect to cases not in this category, a limitation upon the effect that is to be given to contributory negligence, while no corresponding limitation is imposed upon the defense of assumption of risk -- perhaps none was deemed feasible.

The distinction, although simple, is sometimes overlooked. Contributory negligence involves the notion of some fault or breach of duty on the part of the employee, and since it is ordinarily his duty to take some precaution

Page 233 U. S. 504

for his own safety when engaged in a hazardous occupation, contributory negligence is sometimes defined as a failure to use such care for his safety as ordinarily prudent employees in similar circumstances would use. On the other hand, the assumption of risk, even though the risk be obvious, may be free from any suggestion of fault or negligence on the part of the employee. The risks may be present notwithstanding the exercise of all reasonable care on his part. Some employments are necessarily fraught with danger to the workman -- danger that must be and is confronted in the line of his duty. Such dangers as are normally and necessarily incident to the occupation are presumably taken into the account in fixing the rate of wages. And a workman of mature years is taken to assume risks of this sort whether he is actually aware of them or not. But risks of another sort, not naturally incident to the occupation, may arise out of the failure of the employer to exercise due care with respect to providing a safe place of work and suitable and safe appliances for the work. These employee is not treated as assuming until he becomes aware of the defect or disrepair and of the risk arising from it, unless defect and risk alike are so obvious that an ordinarily prudent person under the circumstances would have observed and appreciated them. These distinctions have been recognized and applied in numerous decisions of this Court. Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf R. Co. v. McDade,191 U. S. 64, 191 U. S. 68; Schlemmer v. Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Ry. Co.,220 U. S. 590, 220 U. S. 596; Tex. & Pac. Ry. Co. v. Harvey,228 U. S. 319, 228 U. S. 321; Gila Valley Ry. Co. v. Hall,232 U. S. 94, 232 U. S. 102, and cases cited.

When the employee does know of the defect, and appreciates the risk that is attributable to it, then if he continues in the employment without objection, or without obtaining from the employer or his representative an assurance that the defect will be remedied, the employee

Page 233 U. S. 505

assumes the risk, even though it arise out of the master's breach of duty. If, however, there be a promise of reparation, then during such time as may be reasonably required for its performance, or until the particular time specified for its performance, the employee, relying upon the promise, does not assume the risk, unless, at least, the danger be so imminent that no ordinarily prudent man under the circumstances would rely upon such promise. Hough v. Railway Co.,100 U. S. 213, 100 U. S. 224; Southwestern Brewery v. Schmidt,226 U. S. 162, 226 U. S. 168. This branch of the law of master and servant seems to be traceable to Holmes v. Clarke, 6 Hurl. & Norm. 349; Clarke v. Holmes, 7 Hurl. & Norm. 937.

In the light of these principles the rulings of the trial court in the case at bar must be considered.

Defendant specifically requested an instruction that plaintiff's right to recover damages was to be determined by the provisions of the federal act, and that,

"if you find by a preponderance of evidence that the water glass on the engine on which plaintiff was employed was not provided with a guard glass, and the condition of the glass was open and obvious and was fully known to plaintiff, and he continued to use such water glass with such knowledge and without objection, and that he knew the risk incident thereto, then the court charges you that the plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk incident to such use, and you will answer the second issue 'Yes.'"

The court gave this instruction as applicable to the issue of contributory negligence, and instead of the words, "then the court charges you that the plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk incident to such use, and you will answer the second issue Yes,'" used the words, "then the court charges you that the plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence, and you will answer the third issue `Yes.'" To the refusal to give the instruction as requested, and the modification of it, defendant excepted.

Page 233 U. S. 506

The trial court evidently deemed, as did the state supreme court, that the topic of assumption of risk, with reference to the circumstances of the case, was sufficiently and properly covered by an instruction actually given as follows: after stating in general terms that "a man assumes the risk when he takes employment, incident to the class of work which he is to perform," but that "he does not assume the risk incident to the negligence of his employer in providing machinery and appliances with which he has to work," the court proceeded as follows:

"On the other hand, the employer has the right to assume that his employee will go about his work in a reasonably safe way, and give due regard to the machinery and appliances which are in his hands and under his control, and if you should find from the evidence by its greater weight (because the burden in this instance is on the defendant), that the plaintiff knew of the absence of the guard or shield to the water gauge and failed to give notice to the defendant or to the agent whose duty it was to furnish the water gauge and appliance, and he continued to use it without giving that notice, it being furnished to him in a safe condition, then he assumed the risk incident to his work in the engine with the glass water gauge in that condition, although he might have handled his engine in every other respect with perfect care. [Italics ours.]"

It will be observed that, by this instruction, the application of the rule of assumption of risk was conditioned upon the jury's finding that the water gauge, when furnished to plaintiff, was in a safe condition. Here again, the court appears to have followed the local statute, rather than the act of Congress, for § 2646, Nor.Car. Revisal of 1905, already quoted, has been held by the state supreme court to abolish assumption of risk as a bar to an action by a railroad employee for an injury attributable to defective appliances furnished by the employer. Coley v. Railroad

Page 233 U. S. 507

Co., 128 N.C. 534. The trial court, while recognizing that the act of Congress applied so far as its terms extended, and that, by its terms, the employee is not to be held to have assumed the risk in any case where the violation by the carrier of a statute enacted for the safety of employees contributed to the injury, at the same time held that, since no statute had been enacted covering such an appliance as the glass water gauge, the rights of plaintiff were such as he would have under the state law. An instruction to the jury to this effect preceded the instructions we have just quoted.

It is true that such an appliance as the water gauge and guard glass in question is not covered by the provisions of the Safety Appliance Act, or any other law passed by Congress for the safety of employees in force at the time this action arose. But the necessary result of this is not to leave the employer responsible for the consequences of any defect in such an appliance, excluding the common law rule as to assumption of risk, but to leave the matter in this respect open to the ordinary application of the common law rule. The adoption of the opposite view would, in effect, leave the several state laws, and not the act of Congress, to control the subject matter.

By the instruction as given, the application of the rule of assumed risk was confined to the single hypothesis that the jury should find the guard glass was in position when the engine was delivered to plaintiff on the morning of July 27th. This, as already pointed out, was one of the questions in dispute, plaintiff having testified that the guard glass was missing at that time, while his fireman testified (and in this was corroborated by circumstantial evidence) that it was in place at that time, and was subsequently broken. But, by the common law, with respect to the assumption by the employee of the risk of injuries attributable to defects due to the employer's negligence, when known and appreciated by the employee

Page 233 U. S. 508

and not made the subject of objection or complaint by him, it is quite immaterial whether the defect existed when the appliance was first placed in his charge or subsequently arose. Hence, if the guard glass was missing when plaintiff first took the engine, as he testified, and he, knowing of its absence and the consequent risk to himself, continued to use the water gauge without giving notice of the defect to the defendant or its representative, he assumed the risk.

Defendant was entitled to have the requested instruction given respecting assumption of risk, and as the charge actually given did not cover the same ground, there was error.

Its harmful effect is conspicuously evident when we note that the jury, while finding that plaintiff did not assume the risk, at the same time found that he did, by his own negligence, contribute to his injury. Presumably, if instructed in the manner requested by defendant, the jury would have found that the risk was assumed, and this would have entitled defendant to a judgment in its favor, instead of a mere mitigation of the damages, which was the consequence of a finding of contributory negligence.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of North Carolina must be reversed, and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Reversed.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.