Pokora v. Wabash Railway Co.,
292 U.S. 98 (1934)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Pokora v. Wabash Railway Co., 292 U.S. 98 (1934)

Pokora v. Wabash Railway Co.

No. 585

Argued March 8, 9, 1934

Decided April 2, 1934

292 U.S. 98


1. The burden of establishing the defense of contributory negligence in a personal injuries case is on the defendant. P. 292 U. S. 100.

2. Upon a motion by the defendant for a directed verdict, made at the close of the plaintiff's case in chief, and based upon the ground of contributory negligence, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and all inferences from it which the jury might reasonably draw in his favor are to be assumed. P. 292 U. S. 100.

3. The proposition that a driver of an automobile, before crossing a railroad of which his view is obstructed, must get out of his vehicle and inspect the track if he cannot otherwise be sure that a train is not dangerously near, cannot be accepted as a general rule of law. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Goodman, 275 U. S. 66, limited. Pp. 292 U. S. 102, 292 U. S. 106.

4. The driver of an automobile truck, pursuing his way in a line of auto traffic along a busy city thoroughfare in the day time, attempted to cross another street traversed by a railroad switch track and, beyond that and close to it, by a main line for passenger trains. Before entering the street intersection, he had stopped his vehicle, and, before proceeding, he looked for trains, but a string of box cars on the switch cut off his view. He listened, but heard neither bell nor whistle. Still listening, he drove across the switch and, reaching the main line, was struck by a train coming at the unlawful speed of 25 or 30 miles per hour. The evidence would support a finding that, owing to the presence of the box cars and the proximity of the two tracks, the train was not visible from his seat while there was still time to stop. In an action for resulting injuries, held:

(1) That the question whether, in the circumstances, it was negligence to go forward in reliance on the sense of hearing unaided by sight, was a question for the jury. P. 292 U. S. 101.

(2) The driver was not bound as a matter of law to leave his truck either on the switch track or at the curb, in order to make visual observations which might turn out worthless by the time he had returned to the vehicle and driven it forward. Pp. 292 U. S. @

Page 292 U. S. 99

5. A standard of prudent conduct declared by courts a a rule of law must be taken over from the facts of life, and must be such that a failure to conform to it is negligence so obvious and certain that rational and candid minds could not deem it otherwise. P 292 U. S. 104.

66 F.2d 166 reversed.

Certiorari, 290 U.S. 624, to review the affirmance of a judgment for the Railway Company, entered on a directed verdict in Pokora's action for personal injuries.

Primary Holding

What a reasonable person will do depends on the specific circumstances, and that evaluation is properly assigned to a jury.


Wabash Railway Co. operated four tracks at a railroad crossing. The driver of a truck approaching the crossing, Pokora, found that his view of the tracks to the north was blocked by boxcars on the first track. He stopped the truck to look and listen, but he did not get out of the truck to look down the tracks. Since he saw and heard nothing from inside his truck, Pokora proceeded cautiously onto the main track. A train coming from the north struck his truck.

Rather than allowing the jury to decide the case, the trial judge issued a directed verdict for the defendant. It ruled that Pokora's conduct showed that he was contributorily negligent, which at the time was a comprehensive bar against recovering damages.



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

Whether the conduct in this situation amounted to contributory negligence is a close factual question that should be resolved by a jury. It was not so obviously negligent that reasonable people could not reach different conclusions. More evidence would be needed to determine what would have been safe precautions for Pokora to take.

Case Commentary

This decision reiterates the importance of leaving factual determinations to a jury rather than a judge in deciding whether certain conduct is appropriate. Judges are responsible only for framing legal rules rather than flexible standards, especially since norms of behavior can change over time.

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