In this action again.st a railroad under the Safety Appliance
Act and the Federal Employers' Liability Act, based on an alleged
violation of the automatic coupler requirement of the Safety
Appliance Act, it appeared from the evidence that the plaintiff, a
switchman, lost a leg in his attempt to stop a string of moving
cars which had separated from others after an earlier failure of
two of them to couple on impact. The verdict of the jury and the
judgment of the trial court were for the plaintiff.
1. The issue of proximate cause was properly determined in favor
of the plaintiff. Carter v. Atlanta & St. A. B. R.
Co., 338 U. S. 430
339 U. S.
2. The duty of the carrier under the automatic coupler
requirement of the Safety Appliance Act is unrelated to negligence,
but is an absolute one requiring proper performance of the couplers
on the occasion in question. O'Donnell v. Elgin, J. & E. R.
Co., 338 U. S. 384
339 U. S.
3. The charge of the trial court in this case sufficiently
informed the jury as to the relevant legal rules. It did not
deprive the railroad of a defense based on the possibility that the
separation of the cars was due to the plaintiff's failure to open
the coupler. Pp. 339 U. S.
4. In the circumstances of this case, the amount of damages
($80,000) awarded by the trial court's judgment was not excessive.
P. 339 U. S.
174 F.2d 486 reversed.
In an action under the Safety Appliance Act and the Federal
Employers' Liability Act, the District Court entered judgment for
the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals reversed. 174 F.2d 486. This
Court granted certiorari. 338 U.S. 813. Reversed,
339 U. S.
Page 339 U. S. 97
MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.
We have for review a judgment of the Court of Appeals for the
Eighth Circuit, reversing petitioner's recovery of an $80,000
judgment against the respondent railroad based on an alleged
violation of the Federal Safety Appliance Act [Footnote 1
] and the Federal Employers' Liability
Act. [Footnote 2
was a member of a crew engaged in classifying, or sorting, a number
of railroad cars in the respondent's yards. Twenty-four cars had
been coupled together on one track. The twenty-fifth, a Rock Island
car, was kicked eastward down the track to couple with the others.
It did so, its east end joining the other cars. A Pennsylvania car
was the next car kicked eastward down the track, but it and the
Rock Island car failed to couple together. After three or four
other cars had been added, the Rock Island car and the twenty-four
others to which it was attached began rolling down the track.
Petitioner ran after the moving train of cars in an attempt to
board and stop them, as was his duty. His leg was lost as he fell
under a car in this attempt.
The trial was to a jury, petitioner contending that the failure
of the Pennsylvania car to join the Rock Island car on impact was,
in itself, a violation of the Safety Appliance Act, resulting in
the separation and
Page 339 U. S. 98
his injury. Respondent took the position that the criterion of
the Act is "were they [the cars] equipped with efficient couplers?"
and not "did they [the couplers] in fact, fail to couple?;" and
that, if there was a violation of the Act, it was not the proximate
cause of the injury. The jury returned a verdict for $95,000 which,
upon remittitur, was reduced to $80,000. A judgment in this amount
was entered 1948, 79 F. Supp.
. On appeal, the judgment was reversed. 174 F.2d 486 (1949).
We granted certiorari. 338 U.S. 813 (1949).
The Court of Appeals determined the issue of proximate cause
favorable to petitioner, and respondent admits that the
"problem of causal connection vel non
case is legally identical with the same problem
in the Carter
case. [Carter v. Atlanta & Saint
Andrews Bay R. Co., 338 U. S. 430
We agree, and consequently hold the issue correctly determined
Nor do we think that any question regarding the normal
efficiency of the couplers is involved in an action under the
Safety Appliance Acts. As we said in O'Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet
& Eastern R. Co., 338 U. S. 384
(1949), and the Carter
under the Acts is not based on the negligence of the carrier, but
is an absolute one requiring performance "on the occasion in
The Court of Appeals based its disposition of the case on the
reasoning that the charge [Footnote
] given the jury contained "no explanation of the legal
effect" of the direct proof of the separation of the cars "and the
permissible use which the jury could make of it. . . ." We think
the Court of Appeals erroneously concluded that the jury could find
for the plaintiff only if it inferred "bad condition of the
couplers and consequent violation of defendant's statutory duty. .
. ." This was the same error
Page 339 U. S. 99
the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit made in
in an opinion relied upon by respondent
in the present cause. In subsequently reversing the judgment of the
Court of Appeals, we held that the plaintiff did not have to show a
"bad" condition of the coupler; she was entitled to a peremptory
instruction that to equip a car with a coupler which failed to
"in the switching operation was a violation of the Act, which
rendered defendant liable for injuries proximately resulting
therefrom, and that neither evidence of negligence nor of diligence
and care was to be considered on the question of this
Further, we said, "a failure of equipment to perform as required
by the Safety Appliance Act is, in itself, an actionable wrong. . .
Of course, this assumes that the coupler was placed in a
position to operate on impact. Thus, if "the failure of these two
cars to couple on impact was because the coupler on the
Pennsylvania car had not been properly opened," the railroad had a
good defense. The Court of Appeals also found fault with the charge
on the ground that it deprived defendant of this defense. We cannot
agree. The trial court directed the jury at least three times that
it was for them to determine the reason why the cars separated, and
specifically called their attention to the testimony of the head
switchman, thus emphasizing the possibility that his failure, if
any, to open the coupler was the cause of the separation. Likewise,
the argument of counsel, both for plaintiff and defendant, clearly
reveals that the sole question with regard to this issue was
whether, after the couplers were placed in open or proper position,
they failed to couple automatically on impact. [Footnote 4
Page 339 U. S. 100
jury, by its verdict, resolved the question against the
We think the charge, taken as a whole sufficiently informed the
jury of the relevant legal rules.
Page 339 U. S. 101
We agree with the Court of Appeals that the amount of damages
awarded by the District Court's judgment is not monstrous in the
circumstances of this case. Barry v. Edmunds, 116 U.
(1886). Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of
Appeals is reversed, and that of the District Court affirmed.
MR. JUSTICE REED dissents. He would affirm on the failure of the
trial court to make clear to the jury that the carrier was not
liable under the Safety Appliance Act if the failure to couple was
due to negligence in setting the coupler. See New York, c.
& St.L.R. Co. v. Affolder,
174 F.2d 486, 491, and
O'Donnell v. Elgin, J. & E. R. Co., 338 U.
, 338 U. S. 394
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER would dismiss this writ as improvidently
granted, for reasons set forth by him in Carter v. Atlanta
& St. Andrews Bay R. Co., 338 U.
, 338 U. S.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS took no part in the consideration or
decision of this case.
"It shall be unlawful for any common carrier engaged in
interstate commerce by railroad to haul or permit to be hauled or
used on its line any car used in moving interstate traffic not
equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and which
can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going between the
ends of the cars."
27 Stat. 531, 45 U.S.C. § 2.
35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60.
The trial court's charge is set out at length in the opinion of
the Court of Appeals, 174 F.2d 486, 488-491.
Defendant had introduced in evidence a small model of the
coupler involved, and an expert had demonstrated its workings to
the jury. Counsel for defendant argued to the jury:
"He [plaintiff's counsel] says it is only necessary to show that
there was no coupling. I say he is wrong. I say he must show that
there was a failure to couple because the car was not equipped with
couplers coupling automatically on impact. If they did not couple,
and if they did not couple because of some other reason . . . ,
then there is no liability in this case."
Defendant's counsel, in using the model, explained his position:
"This lock was held up so that the knuckle would not lock back,
it was closed, tell me, ladies and gentlemen, would this knuckle be
opened or closed following the accident? Well, obviously, if the
failure of the coupling to make was because the knuckle was not
locked closed, it would have to be open following the accident, and
Millikan testified that the knuckle [an hour after the accident]
was not only closed . . . , but the pin was seated, the lock was
down. . . . Now, the answer to that, ladies and gentlemen, is the
only possible answer . . . this knuckle was closed when the
Pennsylvania car was kicked down on the Rock Island car."
Plaintiff's counsel countered:
"I don't say, and never told you, never will, nor will the
Court, that, if there is merely separation of cars, plaintiff shall
recover. I simply told you, if there is a separation of cars after
those devices were put in operation and did not operate, then they
failed to perform their duty, regardless of how they operated
before or since, and that we do not have to prove -- and the Court
will tell you that emphatically -- any defect."
As to whether the knuckle was opened, there was this argument by
"Now, let me ask you, did Tielker (the head switchman) open that
knuckle or not open it? He says that, when he went to open that
knuckle, he had difficulty in opening it -- he had to push it three
times, when it failed to open the first time, showing something was
"* * * *"
"This bad-order card -- remember this is on the front end of it
-- and that is car Pennsylvania 727512. . . . [T]hey find that bent
operating lever rod, or bent operating lever bracket, don't they?
They find that themselves. This is their card, this is their
"What does this card do then that I have in my hand? What does
it do? It confirms Tielker, doesn't it?"
MR. JUSTICE JACKSON, dissenting.
The only issue surviving in this case is whether the charge gave
the jury a sufficiently clear and correct knowledge of the law to
The Court of Appeals thought the charge as a whole "very
probably gave the jury the impression" that it need only find that
two cars failed to couple on impact to establish a violation of the
Safety Appliance Act. This, as the Court recognizes, is not the
law. Before a failure to couple establishes a defective coupler, it
must be found that it was properly set so it could couple. If it
was not adjusted as such automatic couplers must be, of course, the
failure is not that of the device.
Page 339 U. S. 102
The instructions contained language quoted by this Court that
would suggest this rule. Other language was used, however, which
might well cancel the effect of that quoted. Judge Collet, for the
Court of Appeals, said, "We are unable to escape the conclusion
that the instruction was not sufficiently clear and definite in
that respect." 174 F.2d at 491.
If the charge seemed so foggy to a Court of Appeals, generally
familiar with what the trial judge was driving at, I do not see how
this Court can be so confident that it did not mislead a jury of
laymen. That confidence is all upon which we reverse the judgment.
We cannot know any more about its effect than did the Court of
Appeals, and that court happened to have been composed of judges,
two of whom have had the experience of presiding over jury trials
in District Court, which gives them a better informed mind on the
subject than we have. I should be inclined to agree with them that
the charge leaves the subject in so much confusion that I do not
know just what the instruction did amount to. The most that can
happen under the decision now being reversed is to resubmit the
case to a jury that probably would be more carefully and clearly
In any event, I do not think this is the kind of issue that
meets the qualifications we have ourselves laid down for grant of
certiorari. Supreme Court Rule 38(5). No question of law is, or
could be, settled unless we could devise some measure of
incoherence so that lower courts would know how much we will think
is too much. Short of that, we only substitute our own impression
for that of the Court of Appeals as to the probable psychological
effect of the instruction in this individual case. All that was
written in favor of dismissing a writ as improvidently granted in
Carter v. Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay R. Co.,
338 U. S. 430
338 U. S. 437
and Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U. S.
, 336 U. S. 65
seems especially applicable here. I would dismiss this writ as