Stokes v. Saltonstall
38 U.S. 181

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Stokes v. Saltonstall, 38 U.S. 13 Pet. 181 181 (1839)

Stokes v. Saltonstall

38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 181

Syllabus

In an action against the owner of a stage coach used for carrying passengers for an injury sustained by one of the passengers by the upsetting of the coach, the owner is not liable, unless the injury of which the plaintiff complains was occasioned by the negligence or want of proper skill or care in the driver of the carriage, in which he and his wife were passengers, and the facts that the carriage was upset, and the plaintiff's wife injured, are prima facie evidence that there was carelessness, or negligence, or want of skill on the part of the driver, and throws upon the defendant the burden of proving that the accident was not occasioned by the driver's fault.

It being admitted that the carriage was upset and the plaintiff's wife injured, it is incumbent on the defendant to prove that the driver was a person of competent skill, of good habits, and in every respect qualified and suitably prepared for the business in which he was engaged, and that he acted on this occasion with reasonable skill and with the utmost prudence and caution, and if the disaster in question was occasioned by the least negligence or want of skill or prudence on his part, then the defendant is liable in the action.

If there was no want of proper skill or care or caution on the part of the driver of a stage coach, and the stage was upset by the act of the plaintiff or his wife in rashly and improperly springing from it, then the defendant is not liable to an action, but if the want of proper skill or care of the driver placed the passengers in a state of peril, and they had at that time a reasonable ground for supposing that the stage would upset, or that the driver was incapable of managing his horses, the plaintiff is entitled to recover, although the jury may believe from the position in which the stage was placed by the negligence of the driver, the attempt of the plaintiff or his wife to escape may have increased the peril, or even caused the stage to upset, and although they may also find that the plaintiff and his wife would probably have sustained little or no injury if they had remained in the stage.

If the driver was a person of competent skill, and in every respect qualified and suitably prepared for the business in which he was engaged, and the accident was occasioned by no fault or want of skill or care on his part, or that of the defendant or his agents, but by physical disability arising from extreme and unusual cold, which rendered him incapable for the time to do his duty, then the owner of the stage is not liable in an action for damages, for an injury sustained by a person who was a passenger.

The defendant in error, Francis W. Saltonstall, in September, 1836, instituted an action for the recovery of damages against Richard C. Stockton and William B. Stokes, owners of a line of stages for carrying passengers from Baltimore to Wheeling, Mr. Saltonstall and his wife having on 6 December, 1836, been passengers in the stage, when, by the carelessness, unskillfulness, and default of the driver, the stage was upset, by reason of which Mrs. Saltonstall had her hip fractured, and several other bones of her body broken, and was otherwise greatly cut, bruised, and injured, so that her life was endangered.

By an agreement between the counsel for the plaintiff and the defendant's no objection was to be taken to the nonjoinder of other persons as defendants, who were also owners or interested in the line of stages when the injury complained of in the action occurred, and the plaintiff might recover in this action any damages which

Page 38 U. S. 182

might be recovered in an action by himself and wife, or by himself alone.

Richard C. Stockton having died after the institution of the suit, it was proceeded in against William B. Stokes, who survived him.

The cause was tried before a jury, and a verdict was given for the plaintiff, under the instructions of the court, for seven thousand dollars. On this verdict the court gave a judgment for the plaintiff.

The counsel for the defendant tendered a bill of exceptions to the opinion of the court, and he afterwards prosecuted this writ of error.

The bill of exceptions stated at large the evidence given on the trial of the cause.

The evidence of the witnesses for the plaintiff, taken under a commission to New Orleans and examined on the trial, stated that at the last change of horses before the accident, the passengers generally remarked that the driver seemed to have drunk too much to go on. Mr. Saltonstall, the plaintiff, went to the agent, or the person avowing himself as such and who was acting in that capacity, and reported to him the observation made by the passengers; the agent replied that the driver was all straight and that the appearance of his being intoxicated was entirely owing to his having driven during the night previous, which had been excessively cold. When the stage arrived at about two miles from Bevansville, the passengers felt the stage strike against a mound or ridge on the right side of the road. Mr. Saltonstall on observing this, immediately jumped out, as was believed, with the intention of stopping the horses; Mrs. Saltonstall attempted to follow her husband, but fell to the ground at the very instant the stage upset, and it fell directly on her. The upset took place on Sunday afternoon, 5 December, at about four o'clock in the afternoon. It was broad daylight. The plaintiff's wife was dreadfully injured; she was taken up and carried to a log house in the neighborhood. The injury was occasioned by the falling of the stage on her body.

A witness stated that the road was perfectly level and in good traveling order. There had been ice, but it had been so beaten down that there was only a little remaining on the sides of the road. The center was free from it. The road was not considered dangerous or difficult. The driver was believed to be intoxicated, and his intoxication was increased by his drinking with a man on the seat along side of him. This belief was produced by his reckless and irregular manner of driving, which called for repeated remonstrances from the passengers and which were wholly unattended to, and for his apparent stupid and drunken manner of conduct after the upset. He was totally unfit for anything; he could not or would not answer a question nor afford the least possible assistance.

The injuries sustained by Mrs. Salstonstall were proved by the surgeons and medical attendants, and they were such as to make it impossible, or too dangerous to attempt to move her from the log hut, from the time of the accident, the sixth day of December, until

Page 38 U. S. 183

the eighteenth day of December, when she was carried to Bevansville, where she remained until the eighteenth day of May following. In July of the same year, she was in Philadelphia, still in a state of great suffering, and using crutches.

The plaintiff also proved by Mr. Ludlow, who was a passenger in a stage which arrived after the accident, that the road was perfectly good and was one of which a stage would not be likely to upset. The witness went to the driver and had some conversation with him. The defendant's counsel objected to the statements of the driver being admitted in evidence, but the court declared them to be admissible, to which the counsel for the defendant excepted. The plaintiff then further proved by Mr. Ludlow that he asked the driver how the accident happened, when he stated he had upset fifty coaches, and he did not believe the woman was as much hurt as she said she was.

The testimony offered by the defendant was intended to show the capacity and sobriety of the driver and that the road was icy, difficult, and dangerous, and that the upsetting of the stage might be accounted for by the slippery and icy condition of the road. The evidence for the defendants, it was contended, proved that had the wife of the plaintiff remained in the stage, no injury would have resulted to her. The other passengers were not materially bruised. The defendant also proved that the coach and harness were properly made and of sufficient strength, and that the horses were good and steady.

The defendant's counsel prayed the court to instruct the jury in sixteen different prayers. Among those were the following:

"1. If the jury shall believe from the evidence in the cause that the injury to the plaintiff's wife was occasioned solely by the overturning of the coach and by its falling upon her, and that such overturning was occasioned by the act of the plaintiff and his wife, or either of them, in leaping from, or otherwise in leaving the said coach, and shall further believe from the evidence in the cause that at the time of such leaping from or of such leaving said coach, there did not exist any certain peril, nor any immediate danger of personal injury, nor any reasonable cause of apprehension of impending danger by remaining in the coach, then the plaintiff is not entitled to recover upon the issue joined in this case, in respect to the said injury sustained by his wife, even if they also believe from the evidence in the cause, that the driver was guilty of carelessness, negligence, and misconduct, in placing the coach in the particular place and situation in which it was at the time of such leaping from, or leaving the coach."

"2. If the jury shall believe from the evidence in the cause that the injury to the plaintiff's wife was occasioned solely by the overturning of the coach, and its falling upon her, and that such overturning was occasioned by the act of the plaintiff and his wife, or either of them, in leaping from or otherwise in leaving the coach,

Page 38 U. S. 184

and shall further believe from the evidence in the cause, that such leaping from, or such leaving the coach, was not under the actual circumstances an act of prudent precaution for the purpose of self-preservation; nor such an act as a person of ordinary care, prudence, or resolution would have adopted, under the actual circumstances, even if they shall believe from the evidence, that such leaping from or such leaving said coach was under the existence and incitement of actual alarm and apprehension of supposed impending danger, then the plaintiff is not entitled to recover upon the issue joined in this cause in respect of said injury sustained by his said wife."

"3. If the jury shall believe from the evidence in the cause that the injury sustained by the plaintiff's wife was occasioned solely by the overturning of the coach and by its falling upon her, and that such overturning was occasioned by the act of the plaintiff and his said wife or by the act of either of them in leaping from or otherwise in leaving said coach, and shall further believe, from the evidence in the cause, that such leaping from, or leaving of said coach was not effected with proper caution and prudence, under the actual circumstances, as well in reference to the situation in which the said plaintiff and his wife (if the overturning was occasioned by the act of both) were placed, or if such overturning was occasioned only by the act of one, in reference to the situation of such one of them, by whom such overturning was occasioned, was placed, as also in reference to the situation in which said coach was placed in position, with respect to the ground on which it stood and otherwise, then the plaintiff is not entitled to recover in respect to said injury to his said wife."

"4. If the jury shall believe from the evidence in the cause that the injury to the plaintiff's wife was occasioned solely by the falling of the coach upon her, and that she was then outside of the coach and on the ground, and shall further believe that at the time she leapt from or left the coach, she knew or believed that it was overturning or about to overturn, and leapt from or left it for that cause, and that she designedly alighted on the ground in the direction in which the coach was overturning or about to overturn; that then, such her act was a rash and imprudent act, and the defendant is not responsible upon the issue joined in this cause for the injury which she so sustained, even if the jury shall at the same time believe that such overturning was occasioned by the fault or negligence of the driver."

"5. If the jury shall find from the evidence that the plaintiff's wife, if she had remained in the coach, would not have been materially injured by the overturning of the same, and shall find from all the evidence in the cause that a discreet and prudent person, under the circumstances in which she was placed, as disclosed in evidence, would have and ought to have remained in the coach, and that she placed herself imprudently and indiscreetly and rashly

Page 38 U. S. 185

in the way of incurring the actual injury which she sustained, that then the defendant is not liable, upon the issue joined in this case, to answer in damages for such injury."

"6. If the jury shall believe from the evidence in the cause, that the plaintiff and his wife, or either of them, by leaping from the coach or leaving the same, contributed in fact to produce the happening of the injury to the plaintiff's wife which she actually sustained, and shall further believe that in so leaping from or leaving the said coach, the same was done unnecessarily and indiscreetly, or imprudently, or rashly, incautiously, or without ordinary care, that then the plaintiff is not entitled to recover in respect of said injury; even if the jury shall believe that the driver was guilty of gross negligence and misconduct, and was partly, or even mainly, the cause of the happening of such injury."

"16. That the prima facie evidence of negligence arising from the fact of the upsetting of the coach, and the injury to the plaintiff's wife, is rebutted by the proof of the fact, if the jury so believe from the evidence, that the defendants had a first-rate coach, a competent set of horses, and good and proper harness, and a competent, prudent, and careful driver at the time of the accident, and that then the burden of proving negligence is thrown upon the plaintiff."

The plaintiff also offered prayers to the court for instructions to the jury.

All the prayers offered by the defendant and the plaintiff were rejected by the court, and the court instructed the jury:

"1. That the defendant is not liable in this action unless the jury find that the injury of which the plaintiff complains was occasioned by the negligence or want of proper skill or care in the driver of the carriage in which he and his wife were passengers, and the facts that the carriage was upset and the plaintiff's wife injured are prima facie evidence that there was carelessness, or negligence, or want of skill on the part of the driver, and throws upon the defendant the burden of proving that the accident was not occasioned by the driver's fault."

"2. It being admitted that the carriage was upset and the plaintiff's wife injured, it was incumbent on the defendant to prove that the driver was a person of competent skill, of good habits, and in every respect qualified and suitably prepared for the business in which he was engaged, and that he acted on this occasion with reasonable skill and with the utmost prudence and caution, and if the disaster in question was occasioned by the least negligence or want of skill or prudence on his part, then the defendant is liable in this action."

"3. If the jury find there was no want of proper skill, or care, or caution on the part of the driver, and that the stage was upset by the act of the plaintiff or his wife, in rashly and improperly springing from it, then the defendant is not liable to this action, but if the want of proper skill or care of the driver placed the passengers in a state of peril, and they had at that time a reasonable ground for

Page 38 U. S. 186

supposing that the stage would upset, or that the driver was incapable of managing his horses, the plaintiff is entitled to recover, although the jury may believe, from the position in which the stage was placed by the negligence of the driver, the attempt of the plaintiff or his wife to escape may have increased the peril or even caused the stage to upset, and although they may also find that the plaintiff and his wife would probably have sustained little or no injury if they had remained in the stage."

"4. If the jury shall find that the driver was a person of competent skill, and in every respect qualified and suitably prepared for the business in which he was engaged, and that the accident was occasioned by no fault or want of skill or care on his part or that of the defendant or his agents, but by physical disability, arising from extreme and unusual cold, which rendered him incapable for the time to do his duty, then the defendant is not liable in this action."

The defendant excepted to the refusal of the prayers offered by him, and to the instructions given by the court to the jury.

Page 38 U. S. 190

Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law 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.