Railroad Company v. Reeves
77 U.S. 176 (1869)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Railroad Company v. Reeves, 77 U.S. 10 Wall. 176 176 (1869)

Railroad Company v. Reeves

77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 176

I

N ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR

THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE

Syllabus

1. When a common carrier shows that a loss was by some vis major, as by flood, he is excused without proving affirmatively that he was guilty of no negligence.

2. The proof of such negligence, if the negligence is asserted to exist, rests on the other party.

3. In case of a loss of which the proximate cause is the act of God or the public enemy, the common carrier is excused though his own negligence or laches may have contributed as it remote cause.

4. The maxim causa proxima non remota spectatur applies to such cases as to other contracts and transactions, and ordinary diligence is all that is required of the carrier to avoid or remedy the effects of the overpowering cause.

5. The more promise of a carrier, without additional consideration, to forward freight already on the route by an earlier train than usual, is not evidence from which a jury can infer a special contract to do so.

Reeves sued the Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company as a common carrier for damage to a quantity of tobacco received by it for carriage, the allegation being negligence and want of due care. The tobacco came by rail from Salisbury, North Carolina, to Chattanooga, Tennessee,

Page 77 U. S. 177

reaching the latter place on the 5th of March, 1867. At Chattanooga it was received by the Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company on the 5th of March, and reloaded into two of its cars, about five o'clock in the afternoon.

The Memphis & Charleston Railroad track extends from Memphis to Stevenson, Alabama, a point west of Chattanooga, on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Between Chattanooga and Stevenson, by a contract between the two companies, the trains of the Memphis & Charleston road were drawn by engines belonging to the last-named road, an agent of the road being at Chattanooga and receiving freight and passengers there for Memphis.

One Price who as agent of Reeves was attending and looking after the tobacco along the route, testified (though his testimony on this point was contradicted) that the agent of the company at Chattanooga promised that, if the bills were brought over in time, the tobacco should go forward at six o'clock that evening, and shortly before that time informed him that the bills had come over, and assured him that the tobacco would go off at that hour. It did not do so, though he, Price the agent, supposing that it would, went on by a passenger train and so could no longer look after the tobacco. By the timetables which governed at the time the forwarding of freight, goods received during one day were forwarded the next morning at 5:45 A.M., and at that time the train on which the tobacco in question was placed went off. This train, however, found the road obstructed by rocks that had fallen during the night and had to return, and in consequence of information of the washing away of a bridge on the road, had to remain at Chattanooga. Chattanooga is built on low ground, on the Tennessee River, which, a short distance west of it, runs along the base of Lookout Mountain. On the 5th of March, there had been heavy rains for some weeks, and the river had been rising and was very high. Freshets of the years 1826 and 1847, the highest ever remembered previous to one now to be spoken of, or of which there was any tradition, had not risen by within three feet as high as the level of the railroad track in the station

Page 77 U. S. 178

where the cars containing the tobacco were placed, on their coming back to Chattanooga, after their unsuccessful attempt to go forward.

The river rose gradually until the evening of the 7th (Thursday), at which time it reached the high water mark of 1847. That night it rose an average of four inches and hour from 7 P.M. to 6 1/2 A.M. of the 8th of March, and it continued to rise until about 2 P.M. of Sunday, the 10th of March. On Friday at 1 P.M., the engines standing on the tracks were submerged so that their lower fire boxes were covered. On Saturday, at 8 P.M., the engines and cars were submerged ten feet or more, and the freight in question was thus damaged. Had it gone off on the evening of the 5th it would not have been damaged. A freight train did leave Chattanooga going towards Memphis on that evening, but it carried freight of the Nashville & Chattanooga road only, and none for the road of the defendant. Four or five days elapsed from the time when the water began to come up into the town, before it was so high as to submerge the cars and injure the freight. No one expected the water would rise as it did, because it rose full fifteen feet higher than had ever before been known. The rise was at first gradual, and from the direction of Lookout Mountain, by backing; but afterwards it came suddenly from the direction of the Western and Atlantic road, opposite to its former direction, and then rose very rapidly. Although on the 6th the river was getting out of its banks, there was no apprehension, up to the night of the 7th, that the water would submerge the town. During the night of the 7th, merchants removed their goods, and one Phillips, who that night removed his to the second story of a building standing on ground no higher than the depot, saved them. The water rose into his building on the morning of the 8th. The people finally fled to the hills, and there was a universal destruction of property as well of individuals as of railroads passing through the city. The waters indeed were so high and the flood finally so unexpected that the mayor broke open railroad cars and took provisions which were in process of transportation, to feed the famishing population. The cars

Page 77 U. S. 179

in which the tobacco was were standing on the highest ground in the region of the station. There were roads in other directions, beside the road over which the rock had fallen, physically traversable by the cars which had the tobacco; but there were difficulties of various kinds in going on them, which the agents considered amounted to a bar to trying to use them.

On this case, the defendant, having by a first and second request, asked the court to instruct the jury that there was no obligatory contract even if the jury believed the conversations deposed to by Price asked further instructions.

"Third. That if the jury shall believe that the train was stopped on the morning of the 6th by the falling of rock on the track and the washing away of a bridge, and was obliged to put back to Chattanooga in order to send force and implements to put the road in repair, then such delay was inevitable, and would not subject the road for any consequential damages, the immediate cause of the damage being the flood."

"Fourth. That when the damage is shown to have resulted from an immediate act of God such as a sudden and extraordinary flood, the carrier would be exempt from liability unless the plaintiff shall prove that the defendant was guilty of some negligence in not providing for the safety of the goods. That he could do so must be proven by the plaintiff or must appear in the facts of the case."

"Fifth. If the freight train carrying the tobacco left Chattanooga on the morning of the 6th of March, 1867, on its proper time under the contract, and was prevented from going forward by obstructions on the track or the washing away of a bridge, caused by an extraordinary fall of rain and freshet, and was detained at Chattanooga by these obstructions, or either of them, until the tobacco was injured by the subsequent freshet, which could not be avoided, then the delay at Chattanooga would not be negligence, and the defendant would not be liable for the injury caused by such subsequent freshet, if such freshet was such as is described in the former request for instructions as an act of God, provided the defendant used all proper diligence to rescue the property from injury at Chattanooga, or provided the freshet was so sudden and overwhelming as to prevent rescuing it. "

Page 77 U. S. 180

But the court refused to give any of these instructions, and gave the jury, among others, the following ones:

"2d. If you shall be satisfied from the proof that the tobacco was injured while the cars upon which it was being shipped were standing at the depot in Chattanooga by a freshet which submerged the cars containing the tobacco, and that no human care, skill, and prudence could have avoided the injury, then such injury would be occasioned by the 'act of God,' and the defendant would not be liable. But, if you believe that the cars containing the tobacco were brought within the influence of the freshet by the act of the defendant, or its agents, and that if the defendant or agents had not so acted the tobacco would not have been damaged, then the injury would not be occasioned by the 'act of God,' and the defendant would be liable for the damage sustained."

"3d. If you shall believe that the tobacco was received at Chattanooga by the defendant on the evening of the 5th of March, 1867, and that the agent of the defendant having the charge of the freights at, and superintending their shipment from, that point to Memphis, made a contract with Price the agent of the plaintiff, by which the tobacco was to be sent forward for Memphis on the same evening, and that the agent of the defendant did not comply with the said contract or engagement so made with the agent of the plaintiff, but held the tobacco over until the next morning's train, and, as a consequence of such delay, the tobacco was injured by a freshet in the rivers and creeks contiguous to Chattanooga, and which freshet would not otherwise than by said delay have caused the said injury, then the defendant can claim no exemption from its liability as carriers on account of any injury or damage occasioned by the said freshet, and you will find a verdict in favor of the plaintiff."

"4th. If you shall believe that the tobacco in controversy was not sent forward from Chattanooga, en route for Memphis, until the morning of the 6th of March (and this in the absence of any such contract as stated in the preceding instruction), and that the train upon which said tobacco was being transported was delayed and hindered in its progress by an obstruction upon the track of the road some two and a half or three miles from Chattanooga, which obstruction was occasioned by a slide or tumbling of a rock from the mountain side along which the track

Page 77 U. S. 181

of the road is located, and in consequence of said obstruction the said train returned to the depot at Chattanooga, when, by a diligent effort on the part of the defendant's agents the obstruction might have been removed and the train gone through to some other point on the road where no injury would have resulted; and if you believe that while the train was so at the depot at Chattanooga the tobacco aforesaid was damaged as alleged, then the returning of the train to Chattanooga was the immediate cause of the injury, and not the freshet; and the injury would not be caused by 'the act of God,' man's agency having intervened, and the defendant would not be relieved from liability, and the plaintiff will be entitled to a verdict in his favor."

"5th. That the loss or damage to the goods in question, if produced by a rise, or freshet, in the river or creeks in the vicinity of the depot where the train was standing, such rise, or freshet, to constitute it 'the act of God,' in a legal sense, must have been so sudden, immediate, and unforeseen as to leave the carrier no sufficient time or means of escape from its consequences. But if it be not shown by the evidence that such was the fact, then it was the duty of the defendant or its agents to save the property of the plaintiff from the impending danger, if it were possible to do so, by extraordinary exertion. If the damage could have been prevented by any means within the power of the defendant or its agents, and such means were not resorted to, then the liability of the defendant would not be relieved, and the jury must find for the plaintiff."

The trial and verdict, which went for the plaintiff, was had March 26, 1868. On the 15th of April following a motion was made by the defendant for a new trial, and overruled. The record went on, under date of the 18th of April, 1868, to say, after giving the title of the case, that,

"On this day came the defendant by attorney and tendered its bill of exceptions herein, and asked that the same might be signed and sealed by the court and made part of the record in this cause, which was accordingly done."

The "bill of exceptions, filed April 18, 1868," then followed. It commenced, after the title of the case, by saying that, "on

Page 77 U. S. 182

the trial of this cause, the following proceedings were had." Then came the testimony introduced, the prayer of the plaintiff in error for five distinct instructions, the refusal of the court to grant them, and the instructions which the court did give (all as already mentioned), and the statement that the defendant excepted to the action of the court in refusing the instructions aforesaid, and also in giving the charge aforesaid, and also in overruling his motion for a new trial.

The exceptions to the charge of the judge at the trial, and to his refusal to charge as requested by defendant below, presented the only grounds on which error was alleged.

Page 77 U. S. 188

MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

A preliminary point is raised by the defendant in error that the exception was not taken at the trial, but was taken afterwards on the overruling of a motion for a new trial.

It seems probable that the formal bill of exceptions was not signed or settled until after the motion was overruled, but it is a common practice, convenient in dispatch of business, to permit the party to claim and note an exception when the occasion arises, but defer reducing it to a formal instrument until the trial is over. We think the language of the bill implies that this was done in the present case, and that it is a reasonable inference from the language used at the beginning and end of this bill, that the exceptions were taken during the trial, as the rulings excepted to were made.

Comment is also made, that the exception does not point out to which instruction it is taken, nor to any special part

Page 77 U. S. 189

of the charge which was given. But the instructions prayed by defendant were not offered as a whole, but each one for itself, and the action of the court in refusing them, to which exception is taken, may be fairly held to mean each of them.

As to the charge given by the court, the language of the exception is more general than we could desire. And if the errors of this charge were less apparent, or if there was any reason to suppose they were inadvertent, and might have been corrected if specified by counsel at the time, we would have some difficulty in holding the exception to it sufficient. But the whole charge proceeds upon a theory of the law of common carriers, as it regards the effect of loss from the act of God, on the contract, so different from our views of the law on that subject, that it needs no special effort to draw attention to it, and it is so clearly and frankly stated as to have made it the turning point of the case.

We are of opinion, then, that both the refusal to charge as requested and the charge actually given are properly before us for examination. As regards the first, we will only notice one of the rejected instructions, the fourth. It was prayed in these words:

"When the damage is shown to have resulted from the immediate act of God, such as a sudden and extraordinary flood, the carrier would be exempt from liability, unless the plaintiff shall prove that the defendant was guilty of some negligence in not providing for the safety of the goods. That he could do so must be proven by the plaintiff, or must appear in the facts of the case."

It is hard to see how the soundness of this proposition can be made clearer than by its bare statement. A common carrier assumes all risks except those caused by the act of God and the public enemy. One of the instances always mentioned by the elementary writers of loss by the act of God is the case of loss by flood and storm. Now, when it is shown that the damage resulted from this cause immediately, he is excused.

Page 77 U. S. 190

What is to make him liable after this? No question of his negligence arises unless it is made by the other party. It is not necessary for him to prove that the cause was such as releases him, and then to prove affirmatively that he did not contribute to it. If, after he has excused himself by showing the presence of the overpowering cause, it is charged that his negligence contributed to the loss, the proof of this must come from those who assert or rely on it.

The testimony in the case, wholly uncontradicted, shows one of the most sudden, violent, and extraordinary floods ever known in that part of the country. The tobacco was being transported from Salisbury, North Carolina, to Memphis, on a contract through and by several railroad companies, of which defendant was one. At Chattanooga it was received by defendant, and fifteen miles out the train was arrested, blocked by a land slide and broken bridges, and returned to Chattanooga, when the water came over the track into the car and injured the tobacco.

The second instruction given by the court says that if, while the cars were so standing at Chattanooga, they were submerged by a freshet which no human care, skill, and prudence could have avoided, then the defendant would not be liable; but if the cars were brought within the influence of the freshet by the act of defendant, and if the defendant or his agent had not so acted the loss would not have occurred, then it was not the act of God, and defendant would be liable. The fifth instruction given also tells the jury that if the damage could have been prevented by any means within the power of the defendant or his agents, and such means were not resorted to, then the jury must find for plaintiff.

In contrast with the stringent ruling here stated, and as expressive of our view of the law on this point, we cite two decisions by courts of the first respectability in this country.

In Morrison v. Davis & Co., [Footnote 1] goods being transported on a canal were injured by the wrecking of the boat, caused by

Page 77 U. S. 191

an extraordinary flood. It was shown that a lame horse used by defendants delayed the boat, which would otherwise have passed the place where the accident occurred in time to avoid the injury. The court held that the proximate cause of the disaster was the flood, and the delay caused by the lame horse the remote cause, and that the maxim causa proxima, non remota spectatur applied as well to contracts of common carriers as to others. The court further held, that when carriers discover themselves in peril by inevitable accident, the law requires of them ordinary care, skill, and foresight, which it defines to be the common prudence which men of business and heads of families usually exhibit in matters that are interesting to them.

In Denny v. New York Central Railroad Co., [Footnote 2] the defendants were guilty of a negligent delay of six days in transporting wool from Suspension Bridge to Albany, and while in their depot at the latter place a few days after, it was submerged by a sudden and violent flood in the Hudson River. The court says that the flood was the proximate cause of the injury, and the delay in transportation the remote one; that the doctrine we have just stated governs the liabilities of common carriers as it does other occupations and pursuits, and it cites with approval the case of Morrison v. Davis & Co.

Of the soundness of this principle we are entirely convinced, and it is at variance with the general groundwork of the court's charge in this case.

As the case must go back for a new trial, there is another error which we must notice, as it might otherwise be repeated. It is the third instruction given by the court, to the effect that if defendant had contracted to start with the tobacco the evening before, and the jury believe if he had done so the train would have escaped injury, then the defendant was liable. Even if there had been such a contract, the failure to comply would have been only the remote cause of the loss.

Page 77 U. S. 192

But all the testimony that was given is in the record, and we see nothing from which the jury could have inferred any such contract, or which tends to establish it, and for that reason no such instruction should have been given.

Judgment reversed and a new trial ordered.

[Footnote 1]

20 Pa.St. 171.

[Footnote 2]

13 Gray 481.

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