Shoemaker v. Kingsbury
79 U.S. 369 (1870)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Shoemaker v. Kingsbury, 79 U.S. 12 Wall. 369 369 (1870)

Shoemaker v. Kingsbury

79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 369

Syllabus

1. When contractors for building a railroad, running a construction train, consent to take a passenger for hire on their train, they are private carriers for hire, and are only bound to exercise such care and skill in the management and running of the train as prudent and cautious men, experienced in that business, are accustomed to use under similar circumstances.

2. The passenger in such case takes upon himself the risks incident to the mode of conveyance.

3. Where an accident occurs to a passenger carried on such a train by the car in which he was carried being thrown off the track, the contractors are not responsible unless the accident is directly attributable to their negligence or unskillfulness in that particular -- that is to say in the management and running of the train. Accordingly, an instruction that it is incumbent on the defendants to prove that the agents and servants in charge of the train were persons of competent skill, of good habits, and in every respect qualified and suitably prepared for the business in which they were engaged, and that they acted on this occasion with reasonable skill, and with the utmost prudence and caution, was held erroneous, in that it turned the attention of the jury from the question at issue for their determination, and directed it to the skill, habits, and attainments for their business of the agents and servants of the defendants, as well as to their conduct on the occasion of the accident.

In 1867, Shoemaker and another were contractors for building the Eastern Division of the Union Pacific Railway in Kansas; and in October of that year, they ran a construction train over a portion of the road, carrying material for it. To this train was attached what was called a "caboose car" -- a car for the accommodation of the men connected with the train, who had their "sleeping bunks" in this car, and who stored their tools there, as also the lamps used on the cars. The road was not yet delivered over to the Pacific Railway Company, and the contractors did not wish to carry passengers. Persons, however, were sometimes carried on the caboose car, and sometimes fare had been charged for their passage, but not always.

Page 79 U. S. 370

In this state of things, one Kingsbury, a sheriff in Kansas, and a deputy marshal wanted to make an arrest on the line of the road, and he applied for passage as far as to a place called Wilson's Creek, asking the conductor to stop the train there in order that he might make the arrest. He was accordingly taken on the train, and the train stopped until he had made the arrest.

A part of the fare charged was paid by Kingsbury on the cars, and the balance afterwards. The train ran from Ellsworth to Walker's Creek in Kansas. In going towards Walker's Creek, the train was made up and ran in the usual way of making up and running railway trains, the engine being in front, with the caboose and flatcars attached in regular order. But on the return from Walker's Creek, as there was, as yet, no turntable on the road, the usual order for making up such trains was reversed, and both engine and tender were backed over the road a distance of more than fifty miles, the tender being ahead, the engine next, the caboose and other cars attached, and following in regular order. When about three miles from Ellsworth, on this return trip, both the engine and tender were thrown from the track and upset. At the time this accident occurred, Kingsbury was riding in the caboose car with the conductor of the train, and either jumped out or was thrown out, which of the two did not exactly appear. Whichever of the two things was true he was hurt, and for the injuries which he received he brought the action below.

The accident was occasioned by the engine's running against a young ox which leaped on to the track about twenty feet in front of the advancing train from grass or weeds five or six feet high growing on the sides of the road. The train was running at its usual rate of speed. The accident occurred just after dark, but it was a moonlight night, and the engineer testified that he could have seen an animal two hundred yards distant on the track; that the animal was only about twenty feet from the engine when first seen. He continued his testimony thus:

"As soon as I saw the animal, I shut off the steam and seized

Page 79 U. S. 371

the lever to reverse the engine, and had it about half over when the engine went off the track. Something struck me on the head, and I did not know anything more. I was injured. I did what I thought was best to be done to stop the train. The whistle lever was in the top of the cab. I did not whistle for brakes. I had no time to do so after I saw the animal and before the engine went off the track. The train could have been stopped in about one hundred and fifty yards. When danger appears, the first thing to be done is to reverse the engine and then sound the whistle for brakes. Both could not be done at the same time. In order to reverse and blow the whistle two motions are necessary -- first, to cut off the steam, and then take hold of the lever to throttle valve and move it over. It takes both hands to reverse. The whistle is sounded by a lever in the top of the cab. Brakemen would know, by shutting off steam and reversing, that something was the matter. It would take about ten seconds to do all this. I did it as quick as I could. I could have done nothing more than I did do."

There was no fence on the sides of the road. The plaintiff had been several times before over the road and knew its condition and the manner in which the trains were made up and run.

The court, among other instructions, gave the following as a fifth to the jury, to which the defendants excepted:

"When it is proved that the car was thrown from the track, and the plaintiff injured, it is incumbent on the defendants to prove that the agents and servants in charge of the train were persons of competent skill, OF GOOD HABITS, and in every respect qualified and suitably prepared for the business in which they were engaged, AND that they 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 their part, then the defendants are liable in this action."

There was no evidence in the case in relation to the skill, habits, or qualifications of the agents and servants of the defendants except what arose from the fact that the engineer had been employed on a railroad about four years and had been engineer for more than two years and that the fireman had been on a railroad for about eighteen months.

Page 79 U. S. 372

Verdict and judgment having gone for the plaintiff, the defendants brought the case here on error.

Page 79 U. S. 375

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