1. Where plaintiff in a suit under the Federal Employers'
Liability Act contended that a release relied upon by defendant was
invalid because neither party knew at the time it was given that
plaintiff's injury was permanent, and the permanence of the injury
was disputed by defendant, defendant was entitled to have the issue
as to the permanence of the injury passed upon by the jury, and it
was error for the trial court to withdraw from the jury the
question of the validity of the release. Pp. 332 U. S.
2. Where, in a case under the Federal Employers' Liability Act,
a railroad pleads a release obtained from an injured employee and
the employee admits giving the release but challenges its validity
on the ground of fraud or mutual mistake, the burden is on the
employee to show that the contract was invalid. Pp. 332 U. S.
3. Section 5 of the Federal Employers' Liability Act, providing
that any contract to enable any common carrier to "exempt itself
from any liability created by this chapter shall to that extent be
void," does not prevent a railroad from compromising or settling
claims and obtaining releases based upon such settlements. Pp.
332 U. S.
162 F.2d 832 affirmed.
In a suit under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, the
plaintiff obtained a judgment notwithstanding a release previously
given. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ordered a new
trial. 162 F.2d 832. This Court granted certiorari. 332 U.S. 807.
p. 332 U. S. 631
Page 332 U. S. 626
MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.
Plaintiff, a railroad brakeman, brought this action under the
Federal Employers' Liability Act, 35 Stat. 65, 53 Stat. 1404, 45
U.S.C. § 51. He recovered a jury verdict of $24,990, but the
Circuit Court of Appeals reversed because of errors in the charge
by the District Judge, and ordered a new trial, 162 F.2d 832. The
plaintiff's claim, as submitted to the jury, was negligence on the
part of an engineer in effecting a coupling operation at a speed
which plaintiff thought would jolt him off the stirrup of the car
he was riding. In jumping for safety, he claimed to have received a
severe and permanent back injury. The defendant denied the
occurrence, offered testimony that plaintiff did not work at the
time in question and also evidence of his admission that he did not
work on that day, but instead shoveled snow to get his car out of
the garage. It also was testified that he had told his conductor he
hurt his back on a different occasion. But if the injury was
sustained at the time and place alleged, the defendant denied
negligence, claimed contributory negligence, and pleaded a general
release. The controversy here concerns the release.
It was proved and not denied that, for a consideration of $250,
the plaintiff executed a general release of "all claims and demands
which I have or can or may have against the said Pennsylvania
Railroad Co. for or by reason of personal injuries sustained by me"
Page 332 U. S. 627
time and place involved in the suit. It also released claims for
loss of time and expense, and recited that the payment was in
compromise, and not an admission of liability, that plaintiff read
and understood the agreement, and that the sum of money stated
therein is all that he was to receive.
On the trial, the plaintiff testified that he read and
understood the release, knew what he was doing, and intended to
waive any further claim, and that, when he began talking
settlement, he said he should have between $300 and $350. No fraud
was alleged, but the plaintiff testified that he executed the
release in reliance on the claim agent's assurance that "there was
nothing wrong" and that he "could get back to the job."
At the trial, plaintiff offered evidence from which the jury
might well find that he had a permanent and serious injury. The
claim agent admitted that, at the time of settlement, he did not
know the plaintiff was suffering the injury which the doctors at
the trial described. The plaintiff had gone to a family physician,
who taped his back, and to a chiropractor, whose report plaintiff
took with him to the claim agent. It did not diagnose permanent
injury, but did suggest a weakness making him more susceptible to
recurrence. The Railroad procured no medical examination of
plaintiff. The claim agent's testimony was that he determined the
amount of the settlement on the basis of his belief that there was
Instructing the jury, the trial court stated:
"Anyhow, they settled to the extent of $250.00, and the release
has been offered in evidence and admitted, and both sides agree
that the release was not in contemplation of any sort of permanent
"* * * *"
"Now, I am going to consider that release as binding to the
amount of $250.00, and if you find a verdict
Page 332 U. S. 628
for the plaintiff, you will deduct that from any amount you
would otherwise give him. The $250.00 he got for expenses and
medical bills and services that the obtained up to that time, and
if you find that he is entitled to a verdict at your hands, I will
ask you to deduct that $250.00 from any amount you otherwise would
award him, because that is what he agreed to take toward that
particular phase of his claim, and, of course, he would not and
does not ask, as I understand it, to be excused from that -- he
admits that he got it, and there it is."
"The release, as I have told the attorneys for both sides, I do
not consider binding insofar as it applies to his permanent
injuries, because the Pennsylvania Railroad certainly didn't know
he was permanently injured. . . ."
The Circuit Court of Appeals, quite rightly we think, construed
the charge of the District Judge as withdrawing the question of
validity of the release from the jury, and said:
"This was palpable error under the facts relating to the
release, and entirely aside from the Court's incorrect assumption
that there was no dispute about the permanency of the
An examination of the record at the trial makes it clear that
the issue was raised and sharply litigated as to whether the
injury, if received by plaintiff in the manner alleged, was
permanent in character. Only when and if this issue was resolved in
favor of one party or the other could it be known whether there was
a basis for finding a mutual mistake or any mistake of fact in
executing the release. The court, however, resolved the issue of
permanence of injury against the defendant, at least so far as the
release was concerned, and, on that basis, withdrew consideration
of that issue from the jury. Even if the issue of permanence were
resolved against the defendant, an issue still existed as to
validity of the release,
Page 332 U. S. 629
since the defendant insists that it did not act from mistake as
to the nature and extent of the injuries, but entered into the
release for the small consideration involved because, upon the
evidence in its hands at the time, no liability was indicated. We
think the defendant was entitled to argue these contentions to the
jury, and to have them submitted under proper instructions.
It is apparent that the jury accepted the instructions of the
court on the subject of the release. Returning, they rendered a
verdict "for the plaintiff, and assess the damages of $25,240.00,
of which the Railroad is to be reimbursed with $250.00." The court,
saying he wanted to make the record right, asked the jury if they
made a net finding of $24,990, which the foreman said they did.
Under the instructions they had received, there was little else
that the jury could do, for the court had withdrawn from them the
issue as to the validity of the release, and consequently had given
them no instructions as to the law that should govern the
determination of any such question.
While the trial court assumed a finding of permanency as a basis
for his setting aside of the release, after challenge to his
assumption as to the nature of the injuries, he made every effort
to correct the impression, insofar as it affected the issue of
damages. But the trial court did not correct or in any way alter
his determination that the release was not binding insofar as it
rested on the assumption of permanent injury. The Court of Appeals
was right in holding that failure to submit this latter question to
the jury was reversible error.
We are urged, however, to decide in this case that the release
was properly disregarded by the trial court upon the ground that
the burden should not be on one who attacks a release, to show
grounds of mutual mistake or fraud, but should rest upon the one
who pleads such a contract, to prove the absence of those grounds.
Page 332 U. S. 630
is not contended that this is or ever has been the law; rather,
it is contended that it should be the law, at least as to railroad
cases. The amicus
brief puts it that
"We ask that the burden of establishing the validity of a
release taken from a railroad employee under the Federal Employers'
Liability Act be placed on the railroad. And that, where but a
nominal sum has been paid which is less than or even equal to only
the wages lost, that fact, of itself, be held to be evidence of at
least a mistake of facts, if not presumed fraud, since the railroad
possesses superior facilities for determining the extent of
injuries. . . ."
Considerable reliance is placed upon a concurring opinion in the
Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Ricketts v.
Pennsylvania R. Co.,
153 F.2d 757, 760. However persuasive the
arguments there stated may be that inequality of bargaining power
might well justify a change in the law, they are also a frank
recognition that the Congress has made no such change. An amendment
of this character is for the Congress to consider, rather than for
the courts to introduce. If the Congress were to adopt a policy
depriving settlements of litigation of their prima facie
validity, it might also make compensation for injuries more certain
and the amounts thereof less speculative. But until the Congress
changes the statutory plan, the releases of railroad employees
stand on the same basis as the releases of others. One who attacks
a settlement must bear the burden of showing that the contract he
has made is tainted with invalidity, either by fraud practiced upon
him or by a mutual mistake under which both parties acted.
The plaintiff has also contended that this release violates § 5
of the Federal Employers' Liability Act, which provides that any
contract to enable any common carrier to "exempt itself from any
liability created by this chapter
Page 332 U. S. 631
shall to that extent be void." 35 Stat. 66, 45 U.S.C. § 55. It
is obvious that a release is not a device to exempt from liability,
but is a means of compromising a claimed liability, and to that
extent recognizing its possibility. Where controversies exist as to
whether there is liability, and if so for how much, Congress has
not said that parties may not settle their claims without
Since we believe the Court of Appeals was right in directing a
new trial at which the jury shall be permitted to pass on all
issues of fact, the judgment is
MR. JUSTICE BLACK, MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, MR. JUSTICE MURPHY, and
MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE, being of the view that releases under the
Federal Employers' Liability Act should be governed by the same
rule which applies to releases by seamen in admiralty (see
the separate opinion of Judge Jerome Frank, Ricketts v.
Pennsylvania R. Co.,
153 F.2d 757, 767-770, 164 A.L.R. 387),
dissent from an affirmance of the judgment.