In a suit under the Federal Safety Appliance and Federal
Employers' Liability Acts to recover damages for the death of a
railroad employee, the undisputed evidence established that the
employee was killed when a motor-driven track car on which he was
following a train crashed into the train when it stopped suddenly
and unexpectedly because of a defective air-brake appliance.
1. His administrator was entitled to recover if this defective
appliance was the sole or a contributory proximate cause of the
employee's death. Pp. 335 U. S.
2. On the evidence in this case, the jury could have found that
decedent's death resulted in whole or in part from the defective
appliance, and it was error to direct a verdict for the railroad.
Pp. 335 U. S.
___ Utah ___, 185 P.2d 963, reversed.
In a suit under the Federal Safety Appliance and Federal
Employers' Liability Acts to recover damages from a railroad for
the death of an employee, a state trial court directed a verdict
for the railroad. The Supreme Court of Utah affirmed. ___ Utah ___,
185 P.2d 963. This Court granted certiorari. 335 U.S. 807.
Reversed and remanded,
p. 335 U. S.
Page 335 U. S. 521
MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
This action was brought in a Utah state court under the Federal
Safety Appliance and Federal Employers' Liability Acts [Footnote 1
] to recover damages for the
death of Frank Lucus, an employee of the respondent railroad. The
decedent's death occurred when a one-man flat-top motorcar crashed
into the back end of an eighty-two car freight train on a main-line
track at a point near Lemay, Utah. Both train and motorcar were
being operated in an eastward direction on railroad business. The
train unexpectedly stopped just before the crash occurred because
the air in its brake lines escaped, thereby locking the brakes. The
air had escaped because of a violation of the Federal Safety
Appliance Act in that the threads on a valve were so badly worn
that a nut became disconnected. When the brakes locked, the
motorcar was several hundred feet behind the freight train moving
at about the same rate as the train, not an excessive rate under
ordinary circumstances. The motor was equipped with brakes which,
had they been applied, could have stopped the car within a distance
of about one hundred feet. But the decedent, who was in control of
the car, did not apply the brakes. Apparently he and another
employee with him were looking backward toward a block signal, and
therefore did not know the train had stopped. [Footnote 2
Page 335 U. S. 522
Despite the proof that the train had stopped because of the
railroad's violation of the Federal Safety Appliance Act, the state
trial judge directed the jury to return a verdict in the railroad's
favor. This resulted from the court's holding that the Act didn't
apply to Mr. Lucus, that the Act's protection against defective
brakes did not extend to employees following and crashing into a
train which stopped suddenly because of defective brake
On appeal, the State Supreme Court affirmed. ___ Utah ___, 185
P.2d 963, 969. That court agreed with the trial court's
interpretation of the Safety Appliance Act, and also held that the
evidence failed to show that the defective appliance was the
"legal" cause of the crash and of the death of decedent. The
obvious importance of the restrictive interpretation given to the
two federal Acts prompted us to grant certiorari.
We cannot agree with the State Supreme Court's
holding that, although the railroad ran its train with defective
brakes, it thereby "violated no duty owing" to the decedent. That
court said that the object of the Safety Appliance Act "insofar as
brakes might be concerned, is not to protect employees from
standing, but from moving, trains."
We do not view the Act's purpose so narrowly. It commands
railroads not to run trains with defective brakes. An abrupt or
unexpected stop due to bad brakes might be equally dangerous to
employees and others as a failure to stop a train because of bad
brakes. And this Act, fairly interpreted, must be held to protect
Page 335 U. S. 523
need protection from dangerous results due to maintenance or
operation of congressionally prohibited defective appliances.
Fairport, P. & E. R. Co. v. Meredith, 292 U.
, 292 U. S. 597
Liability of a railroad under the Safety Appliance Act for injuries
inflicted as a result of the Act's violation follows from the
unlawful use of prohibited defective equipment, "not from the
position the employee may be in, or the work which he may be doing
at the moment when he is injured." Brady v. Terminal R.
Assn., 303 U. S. 10
303 U. S. 16
Louisville & N. R. Co. v. Layton, 243 U.
, 243 U. S. 621
In this case, where undisputed evidence established that the train
suddenly stopped because of defective air-brake appliances,
petitioner was entitled to recover if this defective equipment was
the sole or a contributory proximate cause of the decedent
employee's death. Davis v. Wolfe, 263 U.
, 263 U. S. 243
Spokane & I.E. R. Co. v. Campbell, 241 U.
, 241 U. S.
The Utah Supreme Court reviewed the evidence
here and held as a matter of law that the defective equipment did
not proximately cause or contribute to the decedent's death. That
court discussed distinctions between "proximate cause" in the legal
sense, deemed a sufficient cause to impose liability, and "cause"
in the "philosophical sense," deemed insufficient to impose
liability. It considered the stopping of this train to have been a
cause of decedent's death in the "philosophical sense," in that the
stopping created "a condition upon which the negligence of
plaintiffs' intestate operated," one perhaps of many causes "so
insignificant that no ordinary mind would think of them as causes."
The court added, however, that the stopping "was not the legal
cause of the result," thereby classifying it as not "a substantial,
as well as actual, factor in bringing about" the decedent's death.
This conclusion was reached in part
Page 335 U. S. 524
upon the reasoning that "[t]he leak in the triple valve caused
the train to stop, because, as a safety device, it was designed to
do just that."
The language selected by Congress to fix liability in cases of
this kind is simple and direct. Consideration of its meaning by the
introduction of dialectical subtleties can serve no useful
interpretative purpose. The statute declares that railroads shall
be responsible for their employees' deaths "resulting in whole or
in part" from defective appliances such as were here maintained. 45
U.S.C. § 51. And, to make its purpose crystal clear, Congress has
also provided that "no such employee . . . shall be held to have
been guilty of contributory negligence in any case" where a
violation of the Safety Appliance Act, such as the one here,
"contributed to the . . . death of such employee." 45 U.S.C. § 53.
Congress has thus, for its own reasons, imposed extraordinary
safety obligations upon railroads, and has commanded that, if a
breach of these obligations contributes in part to an employee's
death, the railroad must pay damages. These air-brakes were
defective; for this reason alone, the train suddenly and
unexpectedly stopped; a motor track car following at about the same
rate of speed and operated by an employee looking in another
direction crashed into the train; all of these circumstances were
inseparably related to one another in time and space. The jury
could have found that decedent's death resulted from any or all of
the foregoing circumstances.
It was error to direct a verdict for the railroad. The judgment
of the State Supreme Court is reversed, and the cause is remanded
to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with the
It is so ordered.
27 Stat. 531, 32 Stat. 943, 45 U.S.C. §§ 1, 8, 9; 35 Stat. 65,
as amended, 36 Stat. 291, and 53 Stat. 1404, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51, 53,
Petitioner was employed by the railroad as a signal maintainer.
The other occupant of the motorcar had just been employed to work
in the same capacity. This was the new employee's first trip, and
he took the trip to familiarize himself with the signals. Both
occupants of the car were seated and looking back in the direction
of a block signal. Contributory negligence is not a defense to this