Pennsylvania R. Co. v. Chamberlain,
288 U.S. 333 (1933)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Pennsylvania R. Co. v. Chamberlain, 288 U.S. 333 (1933)

Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Chamberlain

No. 379

Argued January 19, 1933

Decided February 13, 1933

288 U.S. 333


1. A plaintiff in an action for wrongful death cannot recover by proof of facts from which it may be inferred that the injury resulted from an event attributable to the defendant's negligence if the same facts give equal support to an inference that it resulted from another and different event not so attributable. P. 288 U. S. 339.

2. When the plaintiff has failed to sustain his burden of proof, because, as to the existence of a vital fact, two equally justifiable inferences may be drawn from the facts proven, one for and the other against him, the mere conclusion of a witness as to which

Page 288 U. S. 334

inference should be drawn cannot resolve the doubt in his favor. P. 288 U. S. 340.

3. Where the plaintiff's right of recovery depends upon the existence of a particular fact being inferred from proven facts, such inference is not permissible in the face of the positive and otherwise uncontradicted testimony of unimpeached witnesses, consistent with the facts actually proved, showing affirmatively that the fact sought to be inferred did not exist. P. 288 U. S. 340.

4. A brakeman who was riding a cut of cars moving on a distributing track of a large freight yard, in a switching operation, fell and was killed, and the case against the company depended on whether the accident resulted from a collision by a second cut from behind. Three employees who were on the second cut testified positively that there was no collision or contact between it and the first one, and in this they were corroborated by every other employee who was in a position to see. One witness alone, who was standing fifty feet from the track and nine hundred feet from the spot where the body was found, testified that he heard a crash -- a thing not unusual in the yard, only "extra loud" -- which was not sufficient to attract his attention, and did not cause him to turn at once, but that, shortly thereafter, he did turn and saw the two strings of cars moving together, with the deceased, who had been visible before, no longer in sight. Held that the witness' further statement that the crash was caused by a collision of the two strings in question was not testimony to a fact, but merely an inference or conclusion of his own, and that the manifest impossibility of telling by sight, from the place where he was, whether the cars were moving in contact, made his testimony on that point incredible. P. 288 U. S. 342.

5. In a personal injury case, verdict should be directed for the defendant if the evidence for the plaintiff is so insufficient that a verdict in his favor would be improper and must be set aside on motion for a new trial. P. 288 U. S. 343.

6. The scintilla rule has been definitely and repeatedly rejected so far as the federal courts are concerned; the verdict cannot rest on mere speculation and conjecture. P. 288 U. S. 343.

59 F.2d 986 reversed.

District Court affirmed.

Certiorari, 287 U.S. 589, to review the reversal of judgment on a verdict directed in favor of the railroad

Page 288 U. S. 335

company in an action for wrongful death, under the Employers' Liability Act.

Primary Holding

A court can order a directed verdict if the evidence is so insubstantial on one side that the other party would be entitled to a new trial if an adverse verdict were reached.


A brakeman employed by Pennsylvania Railroad was killed when he was routing the company's train cars in a railroad yard. In the ensuing wrongful death claim by his estate, the complaint stated that he had been knocked off his car and run over in a collision caused by the negligent operation of other railroad cars. Three eyewitnesses stated that no collision had happened. By contrast, a witness for the estate named Bainbridge testified that he had heard a loud crash before the accident. Bainbridge pointed out that this was not an unusual event and that he was not paying much attention as he was standing about 900 feet from the victim's body. Pennsylvania Railroad received a directed verdict in its favor.



  • George Sutherland (Author)
  • Charles Evans Hughes
  • Willis Van Devanter
  • James Clark McReynolds
  • Louis Dembitz Brandeis
  • Pierce Butler
  • Harlan Fiske Stone
  • Owen Josephus Roberts
  • Benjamin Nathan Cardozo

A jury is entitled to review the facts in a dispute when there is a genuine conflict of testimony. In this situation, however, the testimony by the plaintiff's witness would equally support inferences that there was a collision and that there was not a collision. Any conclusion that a collision happened would be based on mere speculation because the testimony by the plaintiff's witness was so weak.

Case Commentary

The majority of jurisdictions would disagree with this reasoning, finding that the court should direct a verdict only if the evidence presented by the party against whom the verdict would be directed is insufficient. This decision reveals a process in which the evidence presented by both parties was considered, which is more commonly the approach that is taken in determining whether a new trial is appropriate.

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