Erie Railroad Co. v. Collins, 253 U.S. 77 (1920)


U.S. Supreme Court

Erie Railroad Co. v. Collins, 253 U.S. 77 (1920)

Erie Railroad Co. v. Collins

No. 348

Argued January 8, 1920

Decided May 17, 1920

253 U.S. 77



U.S. Supreme Court

Erie Railroad Co. v. Collins, 253 U.S. 77 (1920) Erie Railroad Co. v. Collins

No. 348

Argued January 8, 1920

Decided May 17, 1920

253 U.S. 77




Plaintiff's duties on a railroad engaged in interstate and intrastate commerce were to attend to a signal tower and switches and also, in a nearby building, to run a gasoline engine to pump water into a tank for the use of the locomotives, whether operating intrastate or interstate trains. While engaged in the latter employment, he was injured and disfigured by burns resulting from an explosion of gasoline. Held employed at time of injury in interstate commerce within the Federal Employers' Liability Act. P. 253 U. S. 82.

Damages may be allowed by a jury for shame and humiliation resulting from an injury and personal disfigurement due to negligence. P. 253 U. S. 85

25 F. 172 affirmed.

Page 253 U. S. 78

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 253 U. S. 80

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Action for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act brought in the District Court for the Western District of New York.

The following are the allegations of the complaint stated narratively:

December 25, 1915, and prior thereto, defendant was an operator of a steam railroad and engaged in interstate commerce. On and prior to that date, plaintiff, as an employee of defendant, operated a signaling tower and water tank in the town of Burns, New York, the tower being used for the operation of trains in interstate and intrastate commerce. The tank was used for supplying the locomotives of the trains with water, which was pumped from a close-by well into the tank by a gasoline engine which plaintiff ran.

In the nighttime of December 25, 1915, while plaintiff was engaged in starting the engine, the gasoline suddenly exploded, burning him and seriously and painfully and permanently injuring him, causing him immediate and permanent suffering and the expenditure of large sums of money, by all of which he was damaged in the sum of $25,000.

The engine was defective, which was the cause of the explosion, plaintiff being guilty of no negligence.

Judgment was prayed in the sum of $25,000.

Defendant, by demurrer, attacked the sufficiency of the complaint and the jurisdiction of the court.

The court (Judge Hazel) overruled the demurrer, but, in doing so, expressed the conflicting considerations which swayed for and against its strength, but finally held the complaint sufficient, "and that plaintiff was engaged in interstate commerce or that his work was so closely connected therewith as to be a part of it." To this conclusion

Page 253 U. S. 81

the court seemed to have been determined by Pedersen v. Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R. Co., 229 U. S. 146.

Defendant answered, putting at issue the allegations of the complaint, and set up as separate defenses assumption of risk and contributory negligence.

A trial was had to a jury during the course of which it was stipulated that, at the time of plaintiff's injury and prior thereto, "trains carrying interstate commerce ran daily," and at such times,

"water from the water tank was supplied daily in part to defendant's engines engaged in interstate commerce and in part to engines hauling intrastate freight."

Motions for nonsuit and for a directed verdict were successively made and overruled.

The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff in the sum of $15,000, upon which judgment was entered against motion for arrest and new trial.

Error was then prosecuted to the court of appeals, which court affirmed the judgment, and to review its action, this certiorari was granted.

The evidence presents very few matters of controversy. It establishes the employment of plaintiff by defendant and its character, and presents the question whether it was in interstate commerce or intrastate commerce, in both of which, it is stipulated, defendant was engaged. And, on this question, the courts below decided the employment was in interstate commerce, though exhibiting some struggle with opposing considerations.

They seemed to have been constrained to that conclusion by the same cases, and a review of them, therefore, is immediately indicated to see whether, in their discord or harmony, whichever exists, a solution can be found for the present controversy.

They all dealt with considerations dependent upon the

Page 253 U. S. 82

distinctions of fact and law between interstate and intrastate commerce. A distinction, it may at once be said, is plain enough so far as the essential characteristics of the commerces are concerned, but how far instruments or personal actions are connected with either and can be assigned to either becomes in cases a matter of difficulty, and ground, it may be, of divergent judgments. With this in mind, we review the cases.

But first as to the facts in this. Defendant is an interstate railroad, and upon its line running from other states to New York it operated in New York a signal tower and switches to attend which plaintiff was employed. It also had near the tower a pumping station, consisting of water tank and a gasoline engine for pumping purposes through which instrumentalities water was supplied to its engines in whichever commerce engaged. While in attendance at the pumping station, plaintiff was injured. And such is the case -- that is, while in attendance at the pumping station, it being his duty to so attend, was he injured in interstate commerce?

It can hardly be contended that, while plaintiff was engaged in the signal tower, he was not engaged in interstate commerce though he may have on occasion signaled the approach or departure of intrastate trains. But it is contended that when he descended from the tower and went to the pumping station, he put off an interstate character and took on one of intrastate quality or, it may be, was divested of both and sank into undesignated employment. A rather abrupt transition it would seem at first blush, and if of determining influence, would subject the Employers' Liability Act to rapid changes of application, plaintiff being within it at one point of time and without it at another -- within it when on the signal tower, but without it when in the pump house, though in both places being concerned with trains engaged in interstate commerce.

Page 253 U. S. 83

But let us go from speculation to the cases. Pedersen v. Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R. Co., 229 U. S. 146, Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R. Co. v. Yurkonis, 238 U. S. 439, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy R. Co. v. Harrington, 241 U. S. 177, Shanks v. Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R. Co., 239 U. S. 556, and Roush v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 243 F. 712, were considered by the court of appeals. Some state cases were also referred to.

In Pedersen v. Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R. Co., it was held that one carrying bolts to be used in repairing an interstate railroad, and who was injured by an interstate train, was entitled to invoke the Employers' Liability Act. In other words, that one employed upon an instrumentality of interstate commerce was employed in interstate commerce. And it was said, citing cases: "The true test always is: is the work in question a part of the interstate commerce in which the carrier is engaged."

In the Yurkonis case, the injury complained of happened to Yurkonis on a mine or colliery of the railroad by the explosion of gases when Yurkonis was engaged in and about the performance of his duties. It was held that an injury so received, though the coal was destined for use in interstate commerce, was not one occurring in such commerce.

In Roush v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 243 F. 712, the decision was that one employed in operating a pumping station which furnished water to interstate and intrastate roads was engaged in work incidental to interstate commerce, the court deducing that conclusion from cases from which it liberally quoted.

In Chicago, Burlington & Quincy R. Co. v. Harrington, 241 U. S. 177, the court of appeals considered as substantially the same in incident and principle with the Yurkonis cases supra. The case concerned an injury

Page 253 U. S. 84

while handling coal. It was a step or steps nearer the instrumentality of use. It was being removed when the injury complained of occurred from storage tracks to chutes. The employment was considered too distant from interstate commerce to be a part of it or to have "close or direct relation to interstate transportation." The Yurkonis case was cited and applied.

Shanks v. Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R. Co., 239 U. S. 556, was considered of like character. The employment asserted to have been in interstate commerce was the taking down and putting up fixtures in a machine shop for repairing interstate locomotives.

Before summarizing these cases, we may add Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Winters, 242 U. S. 353, and Southern Ry. Co. v. Puckett, 244 U. S. 571. In the Winters case, the work was repairing an engine. The engine, it was said, had no definite destination. "It simply had finished some interstate business, and had not as yet begun upon any other." As to such instrumentalities, the determining principle was said to be that their character depends upon their "employment at the time, not upon remote probabilities or accidental later events."

In the Puckett case, an employee (car inspector) going to the relief of another employee stumbled over some large clinkers in his path while carrying a jack for raising a derailed car. It was decided that he was engaged in interstate commerce, the purpose being to open the way for interstate transportation.

These, then, being the cases, what do they afford in the solution of the case at bar? As we have said regarding the essential character of the two commerces, the differences between them is easily recognized and expressed, but, as we have also said, whether at a given time particular instrumentalities or employment may be assigned to one or the other may not be easy, and of this the cases are illustrative. What is their determining principle?

Page 253 U. S. 85

In the Pedersen case, it was said that the questions which naturally arise: "was that work being done independently of the interstate commerce in which the defendant was engaged, or was it so closely connected therewith as to be a part of it?" Or, as said in Shanks v. Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R. Co., supra, was the "work so closely related to it [interstate commerce] as to be practically a part of it?" The answer must be in the affirmative. Plaintiff was assigned to duty in the signal tower and in the pump house, and it was discharged in both on interstate commerce as well as on intrastate commerce, and there was no interval between the commerces that separated the duty, and it comes therefore within the indicated test. It may be said however, that this case is concerned exclusively with what was to be done, and was done at the pump house. This may be true, but his duty there was performed and the instruments and facilities of it were kept in readiness for use and were used on both commerces as were demanded, and the test of the cases satisfied.

There is only one other assertion of error that demands notice. The others (regarding assumption of risk and contributory negligence) counsel neither argue nor submit; their abandonment therefore may be assumed.

It is asserted against the verdict that it is "outrageously excessive," caused by the instruction of the court that plaintiff could recover "for shame and humiliation." Counsel's argument is not easy to represent or estimate. They say that "mental pain" of the designated character, "the suffering from feelings, is intangible, incapable of test or trial," might vary in individuals, "rests entirely in the belief of the sufferer, and is not susceptible of contradiction or rebuttal." If all that be granted, it was for the consideration of the jury. It certainly cannot be pronounced a proposition of law that personal mutilation or disfiguration may be a matter of indifference to anybody

Page 253 U. S. 86

or that sensitiveness to it may vary with "temperaments" and be incapable of measurement. We see no error in the instruction.

Judgment affirmed.