McGovern v. Philadelphia & Reading Ry. Co., 235 U.S. 389 (1914)


U.S. Supreme Court

McGovern v. Philadelphia & Reading Ry. Co., 235 U.S. 389 (1914)

McGovern v. Philadelphia & Reading Railway Company

No. 430

Argued November 30, 1914

Decided December 14, 1914

235 U.S. 389



U.S. Supreme Court

McGovern v. Philadelphia & Reading Ry. Co., 235 U.S. 389 (1914) McGovern v. Philadelphia & Reading Railway Company

No. 430

Argued November 30, 1914

Decided December 14, 1914

235 U.S. 389




Where appellants, plaintiffs below, had a verdict on the first trial which was set aside on motion for new trial on which the district court discussed questions arising under treaties and ruled adversely to plaintiffs, and on the second trial the court ruled adversely to plaintiffs under the federal statute, this Court will presume that the court also considered the treaty questions, and a direct appeal will lie to this Court based on the construction and application of the treaty.

In deciding Maiorano v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co., 213 U. S. 268, which came here on writ of error from the state court, this Court simply accepted the ruling of the state court that a nonresident alien could not maintain an action for death of a relative under the state statute, as being the construction by the highest court of the that statute.

After reviewing the rulings of many jurisdictions in regard to the right of nonresident aliens to maintain actions for death of relatives under statutes giving the right, held that the weight of authority in this country and in England is that alienage is not a condition affecting right of recovery under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.

Quaere whether under the favored nation provision in the existing treaty with Great Britain and the express provision in the treaty with Italy permitting Italian aliens, nonresident in the United States, to maintain actions in the courts of the United States and of the states, a citizen of Great Britain has a treaty right to maintain an action for the death of a relation under the Federal Employers' Liability Acts of 1908 and 1910.

In this case, held that, in view of the conflict of evidence as to the circumstances under which the intestate was killed, the question of assumption of risk was properly presented to the jury.

Where there has been a verdict for plaintiff and it has been set aside on the ground that plaintiff has not capacity to sue, and on the second

Page 235 U. S. 390

trial a verdict directed for defendant on that ground, the circuit court of appeals cannot reverse and direct judgment on the original verdict even if the plaintiff waive a jury trial; the case must be sent back for new trial.

Judgment based on 209 F. 975 reversed.

The facts, which involve the construction of the Federal Employers' Liability Acts of 1908 and 1910 and the right of nonresident aliens to maintain actions thereunder, and also questions involving rights under the favored nation clause of the treaty with Great Britain, are stated in the opinion.

Page 235 U. S. 397

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Action in trespass under the Railroad Employers' Liability Act of Congress of April 22, 1908, 35 Stat. 65, c. 149, as amended April 5, 1910, 36 Stat. 291, c. 143, brought against the railway company, which, it is alleged, caused by negligence the death of Peter McGovern, one of its employees. Plaintiff was duly appointed administratrix of the estate of McGovern, and brought the action in behalf of his surviving parents, who are citizens of Great Britain and Ireland.

McGovern was not married, was twenty-four years old, and was in the habit of making regular contributions to the support of his parents. The facts of the killing are not now in dispute, the principal question in the case being whether, under the act of Congress, and action can be maintained for the benefit of nonresident aliens.

There were two trials of the action. At the first trial, plaintiff obtained a verdict. On motion of the railway company, the court, being of opinion that the action could not be maintained for the benefit of nonresident aliens, granted a new trial. 209 F. 975. On the second trial, the railway company submitted to the court for its affirmance the following propositions, among others: (1) the parents of McGovern, being nonresident aliens, have no right under the act of Congress for which the action might be maintained, and therefore a verdict should be directed in favor of the company; (2) under all of the evidence in the case, a verdict should be for the company. The court affirmed the propositions and directed a verdict for the company. The jury returned a verdict accordingly, and judgment was duly entered for the railway company. This writ of error was then sued out.

It is suggested, rather than urged, that the case is not properly here on direct appeal. But the right of direct

Page 235 U. S. 398

appeal is based on the ground, among others, that the construction and application of the treaty between the United States and Great Britain and Ireland are involved in the case, the favored nation clause of which gives the residents and citizens of Great Britain and Ireland the same rights as those of Italy, and that, by a treaty between the latter and the United States, its citizens are entitled to exactly the same rights as citizens of this country in the courts of this country, although the citizens of Italy may be residing abroad.

In its first opinion in the case, the district court discussed at length the question arising upon the treaty, and held adversely to plaintiff. We must presume, therefore, that the court considered the treaties as elements in its decision upon the right of McGovern to recover for the benefit of the parents of the deceased. This Court therefore has jurisdiction.

We need not, however, discuss the treaties. The view we take of the statute makes such course unnecessary. But see Maiorano v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., infra.

Section 1 of the Act of Congress provides that every common carrier by railroad, while engaged in interstate commerce,

"shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier in such commerce, or, in case of the death of such employee, to his or her personal representative for the benefit of the surviving widow or husband and children of such employee, and if none, then of such employee's parents . . . ,"

the carrier or its agents being negligent or its instrumentalities being defective due to its negligence. Seaboard Air Line v. Horton, 233 U. S. 492, 233 U. S. 501.

In ruling upon the statute, the district court considered that the reasoning in Deni v. Penna. R. Co., 181 Pa. 525, and in Maiorano v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 213 U. S. 268, applied. I n the Deni case, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,

Page 235 U. S. 399

passing upon a statute of the state which permitted certain named relatives to recover damages for death occurring through negligence, held that the statute had no extraterritorial force, and that plaintiff in the action was not within its purview, though its language possibly admitted of the inclusion of nonresident aliens. The Maiorano case came to this Court on writ of error to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, where the doctrine of the Deni case was repeated and applied. This ruling was simply accepted by this Court as the construction of the state statute by the highest court of the state.

We concede some strength of persuasion to the Pennsylvania decision, but to it may be opposed the ruling in other jurisdictions. Mulhall v. Fallon, 176 Mass. 266; Kellyville Coal Co. v. Petraytis, 195 Ill. 217; Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. v. Fajardo, 74 Kan. 314. In the latter case and in Mulhall v. Fallon, many other cases are reviewed, including English and Canadian cases, and it was concluded that the weight of authority in this country and in England was that alienage is not a condition affecting a recovery under acts such as that involved in the case at bar.

In Patek v. American Smelting Co., 154 Fed.190, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit passed on a statute of Colorado which gave a right of action for wrongful death to persons standing in certain relation to one whose death was caused by the wrongful act of another. The court, after considering the policy of the act as manifested in the legislation and reviewing the cases under other statutes of like character, said:

"We think that the better reason, as also the greater weight of adjudged cases, forbids that nonresident aliens be excluded, by interpretation, from among the beneficiaries designated in the statute."

We may refer to these cases for their reasoning without reproducing it, and need not do much more than add that

Page 235 U. S. 400

the policy of the Employers' Liability Act accords with and finds expression in the universality of its language. Its purpose is something more than to give compensation for the negligence of railroad companies. Even if that were its only object, we might accept the distinction expressed in Mulhall v. Fallon, supra, between the duties imposed by a statute upon persons in another state and benefits conferred upon them. Extraterritorial application would naturally not be given to the first,

"but rights can be offered to such persons, and if, as is usually the case, the power that governs them makes no objection, there is nothing to hinder their accepting what is offered."


The rights and remedies of the statute are the means of executing its policy. If this "puts burdens on our own citizens for the benefit of nonresident aliens," as said by the district court, quoting the Deni case, supra, it is a burden imposed for wrongdoing that has caused the destruction of life. If is to the prevention of this that the statute is directed. It is for the protection of that life that compensation for its destruction is given and to those who have relation to it. These may be wife, children, or parents. The statute, indeed, distinguishes between them, but what difference can it make where they may reside? It is the fact of their relation to the life destroyed that is the circumstance to be considered, whether we consider the injury received by them or the influence of that relation upon the life destroyed.

It is, however, contended by the railway company that the deceased, McGovern, assumed the risk of his employment. This is attempted to be supported by the facts in the case. The testimony of plaintiff tended to show the following facts: McGovern was killed by a train bound from New York to Philadelphia while he was engaged in cleaning snow from the tracks of the railway company when there were mist, smoke, and occasional flurries of

Page 235 U. S. 401

snow. At the place where the men were working were four main lines of trackage. Shortly after 9 o'clock, the men were warned off what was called track No. 4 by a call of the foreman to "look out" or "heads up," in order to let a local train pass by.

McGovern and two others were working on track No. 2. There was no call to them, the practice of the foreman being to designate the track in his warning, the men on the other track continuing to work. The foreman testified that he did not see the New York train "because it was a bad morning, snowing, and the Norristown train was a little bit slack, and there was steam and smoke and snow in front of the New York train." The New York train gave no signal, and no warning was given of it. It was testified that the watchman had got his feet wet, and had gone to change his shoes. And it was also in testimony that the Norristown train was slow, and the New York train came fast, and that, while the men were attracted by the first, the other rushed down upon them.

There was testimony by the railway company that the engine whistled. One witness called it a "wicked whistle," and there was also testimony that the men and McGovern directly were warned that they were working in a dangerous place, and to be careful.

There was testimony that the watchman was not absent, and that it was his duty to notify the workmen of approaching trains; that the company, besides, have subforemen to direct the workmen; that the men are "told to be careful" and to watch for themselves "and depend upon the subforeman, of course. . . . No man should continue working if he sees a train coming." It further appeared that the place where the accident occurred was regarded as a dangerous place, the tracks being in frequent use.

It is hence contended by the railway company that McGovern assumed the risk of the situation, and that therefore

Page 235 U. S. 402

it was error for the district court to refuse to give an instruction which presented that contention.

We have given the testimony in general outline, but enough to show that what conflict there was in it was for the jury to judge of and what deductions there were to be made from it were for the jury to make. And the district court, being of this view, refused to charge the jury, as we have seen, that McGovern had assumed the risk of the situation. We cannot say that, as a matter of law, the court was mistaken. We see no error therefore in its ruling.

Plaintiff in error contends that the district court should not have ordered a new trial because she offered to waive her rights to a trial by jury. This was not error.

Judgment reversed and cause remanded for new trial.