Kansas City Southern Ry. Co. v. Ellzey
275 U.S. 236 (1927)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Kansas City Southern Ry. Co. v. Ellzey, 275 U.S. 236 (1927)

Kansas City Southern Railway Company v. Ellzey

No. 63

Argued October 24, 25, 1927

Decided November 21, 1927

275 U.S. 236

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. By the doctrine of the last clear chance, a negligent defendant will be held liable to a negligent plaintiff if the defendant, aware of the plaintiff's peril, had in fact a later opportunity than the plaintiff to avert an accident. But, where, as a result of the negligent operation of a railway motor car by defendant's agent, with plaintiff's acquiescence or encouragement, the car was derailed and plaintiff injured, their courses of conduct were not so independent that either one or the other could be said to have had in fact a later opportunity to avoid the consequence of their joint negligence, and the doctrine was therefore inapplicable. P. 275 U. S. 241.

2. Instructions in such a case held sufficiently favorable to the plaintiff on the subject of contributory negligence. P. 275 U. S. 242.

12 F.2d 4 reversed.

Certiorari, 271 U.S. 69, to a judgment of the circuit court of appeals which reversed a judgment entered on a verdict in the district court in favor of the railway company in an action for personal injuries brought against it by Ellzey. The jurisdiction of the district court was based on diversity of citizenship.

Page 275 U. S. 239

MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, a United States deputy marshal, was assigned to guard Merchant, a telegraph lineman employed by petitioner, from violence by strikers. He went with Merchant to repair a telegraph line, and, while returning with him on a motorcar over petitioner's railroad, the car was derailed and respondent injured. Respondent brought the present suit in the District Court for Western Louisiana to recover his injuries. The trial by jury resulted in a verdict and judgment for the defendant, the petitioner here. The Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, 12 F.2d 4, reversed the judgment, holding that an instruction to the jury by the trial judge was erroneous.

There was evidence from which the jury could have found that the accident and injury were caused by the negligent operation of the motorcar by Merchant at a dangerously high rate of speed. There was also evidence from which it might have found that respondent contributed to his own injury either by urging Merchant to drive at excessive speed or by failing to object to Merchant's

Page 275 U. S. 240

obvious negligence. That part of the charge designated by the court below as erroneous is as follows:

"If you should find that, in this case, the plaintiff urged, directed, or counseled the driver of the car to run it at a reckless and high rate of speed, and that, as a result of such reckless running, [of] the car was injured, then that would be contributory negligence which would bar his recovery, or if he saw that the car was being negligently run, in such a manner as, with the knowledge that he had before him at the time, a man placed in his position must reasonably have known that to continue in the situation he was in was dangerous, without protesting or desisting and removing himself from the perilous situation at the earliest possible moment, then that would be an act of omission which would contribute to the injury, and would in law constitute contributory negligence."

The circuit court of appeals, in holding this instruction improper, pointed out portions of the evidence indicating that respondent's conversations with Merchant, relied on to show that he urged or advised Merchant to drive the motorcar at a dangerous rate of speed, took place at Carson, and later at De Ridder, on petitioner's line, and that the accident occurred after leaving De Ridder, and while proceeding north from that point to Leesville. It pointed out also that, under the quoted instruction, the respondent could not have recovered if the jury found that he had voluntarily remained on the car after he saw it was being negligently run. The court considered this erroneous, saying:

"Though the plaintiff was negligent in the respect stated, if, as evidence adduced indicated, the defendant's employee was aware of such negligence in time to have avoided the injury by the use of reasonable care, and he failed to use such care, that failure might be found to be the sole proximate cause of the injury, and plaintiff's negligence be deemed a remote cause. Chunn v. City &

Page 275 U. S. 241

Suburban Ry.,207 U. S. 302. . . . The plaintiff's right to recover was not barred if his negligence was only a remote cause of his injury and Merchant's negligence was the sole proximate cause of it."

This language suggests that the circuit court of appeals thought this case to be governed by the doctrine of the last clear chance. That doctrine, rightly applied in the Chunn case, amounts to no more than this, that a negligent defendant will be held liable to a negligent plaintiff if the defendant, aware of the plaintiff's peril or unaware of it only through carelessness, had in fact a later opportunity than the plaintiff to avert an accident. Grand Trunk Ry. v. Ives,144 U. S. 408, 144 U. S. 428; Inland & Seaboard Coasting Co. v. Tolson,139 U. S. 551, 139 U. S. 558. In the cases applying the rule, the parties have been engaged in independent courses of negligent conduct. The classic instance is that in which the plaintiff had improvidently left his animal tied in a roadway, where it was injured by the defendant's negligent operation of his vehicle. Davies v. Mann, 10 M. & W. 546. It rests on the assumption that he is the more culpable whose opportunity to avoid the injury was later.

On the facts assumed by the circuit court of appeals -- that Merchant was driving the car recklessly with respondent's encouragement or acquiescence -- the respondent and Merchant were engaged in a common venture which, acting together, they were carrying on in a careless manner. In such a case, their courses of conduct are not sufficiently independent to let it be said that either one or the other had in fact a later opportunity to avoid the consequences of their joint negligence. Compare St. Louis & San Francisco Ry. v. Schumacher,152 U. S. 77; Wheelock v. Clay, 13 F.2d 972; Kinney v. Chicago Great Western R. Co., 17 F.2d 708; Denver City Tramway Co. v. Cobb, 164 F. 41.

We think that the doctrine of the last clear chance was not involved here. If the jury found negligence on the

Page 275 U. S. 242

part of the defendant, then their verdict turned on whether they thought the respondent was guilty of contributory negligence. Whether the instructions were sufficient in this respect is the only substantial question before us. The trial judge charged generally in various forms that respondent's negligence, as a bar to recovery, must be found to have contributed "proximately" to the injury, and that, if respondent counseled Merchant to run the car at a reckless rate of speed, and, by reason of his encouragement, Merchant negligently operated the car, and, as a result of that negligent operation, the injury occurred,

"or if he saw that the car was being negligently run in such a manner, as with the knowledge that he had before him at the time, a man placed in his position must reasonably have known that to continue in the situation he was in was dangerous, without protesting or desisting and removing himself from the perilous situation at the earliest possible moment, then that would be an act of omission which would contribute to the injury, and would in law constitute contributory negligence."

Again, the jury was instructed that respondent

"would not be held to have assumed the risk of an injury resulting from the defendant's negligence merely because the plaintiff failed to interpose his judgment against that of the defendant, unless you find that a man of ordinary care and prudence, so situated, would have abandoned the car."

We think these instructions and others of similar import, read as we must read them in the light of the whole charge, were sufficiently favorable to the respondent on the subject of contributory negligence. Perhaps it would have been permissible to tell the jury that, though respondent had at an earlier moment encouraged or acquiesced in Merchant's recklessness, he might still recover if, later and before the accident, he repented and asked Merchant to drive carefully. But the court's failure to do so in the absence of a specific request seems to us not to be ground for reversal.

Page 275 U. S. 243

The respondent suggests here numerous other objections to the charge as given. We have considered them, and find that they present no substantial question requiring further comment. The judgment of the district court is affirmed, and that of the circuit court of appeals is

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.