Railroad Company v. Pratt,
89 U.S. 123 (1874)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Railroad Company v. Pratt, 89 U.S. 22 Wall. 123 123 (1874)

Railroad Company v. Pratt

89 U.S. (22 Wall.) 123


l. Though where goods received at one place are to be transported over several distinct lines of road to another and distant one, the liability of the common carrier first receiving them (where no special contract is made) is limited to his own line, yet he may subject himself by special contract to liability for them over the whole course of transit. And this is true of a railroad corporation possessed of the powers given to railroad corporations generally and subject to corresponding liabilities; such railroad corporations,

ex. gr., as those incorporated under the general railroad law of New York.

2. If there is competent evidence of such a contract thus to carry put before the jury, the weight, force, or degree of such evidence is not open for consideration by this Court.

3. What amounts to competent evidence. This matter stated in a recapitulation of the evidence given in this particular case. A waybill in which the heading spoke of the goods as goods to be transported by the first road, from the place of departure to the place at the end of the whole line, and at which the owner wished to have them delivered, held to be such evidence, whether looked upon as a contract, or as a declaration or admission.

4. Where in such a line of roads as that described in the first paragraph above, the common carrier owning the first road undertakes to carry goods over the entire line -- part of the goods being put aboard the cars on his line and a part to be put on at its termination and where the next road begins -- the fare asked and agreed to be paid being, however, the fare usually asked and paid for the carriage over the whole line, and the contract being for transportation over the whole road, and not for carriage to the end of the first line and then for delivering to the carrier owning the next road and for carriage by him -- the fact that a part of the goods were put on the cars only where the second road begins will not exonerate the owner of the first road from liability for their loss.

5. Where on such a line of road as that in the said first paragraph described, the second road posts its rules in the station house of the first, a person furnishing goods for transportation "through" is not to be held as of necessity to have notice of them from the fact of such posting, and because he was often in the station house of the first company where they were posted. Independently of which, his contract being with the first company only, and it agreeing to carry for the whole distance, its rules are the rules that are to govern the case.

Page 89 U. S. 124

6. If a common carrier by rail is negligent and careless in furnishing cars, and so furnish cars unsuitable for the case -- even though they be cars for cattle, which cars the owner himself sees, and which cattle the owner himself attends -- the carrier is not relieved from responsibility even though there have been an agreement that he shall not be responsible.

Error to the Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts, in which court J. Pratt and H. Brigham, of Boston, sued, by process of attachment, the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad Company, a corporation of New York, to recover from that company damages for the loss of certain horses which Pratt, for the two parties, had put into the company's cars on its road in the said state, and which had been burned to death, not on the said company's road, but on the Vermont Central Railroad, a road in the state of Vermont connecting with the former but not belonging to the same corporation, but on the contrary belonging to a different corporation, to-wit, a corporation of Vermont.

The case was thus:

In the northeastern part of New York there exists what is known as the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad. The road begins at Ogdensburg, about ninety miles west of Lake Champlain, and runs eastwardly through a place called Potsdam to Rouse's Point on the said lake, at which point it strikes the boundary line between the States of New York and Vermont.

This Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad Company was incorporated under the general railroad law of New York, and possessed the powers possessed by railroad corporations generally, and was subject to the same liabilities as they generally are.

At Rouse's Point begins a new railroad, to-wit, the Vermont Central Road; a different road, as already stated, and owned by a different corporation, one created by Vermont. The rails of the two roads, however, connect. This Vermont Central Road runs across the State of Vermont in a southeasterly direction till it comes towards the edge of Massachusetts, where it strikes a third road, which, passing through Concord in that state, enters the City of Boston.

Page 89 U. S. 125

At the Town of Potsdam, above spoken of as near the west end of the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain road, Pratt, already mentioned, a transporter of horses, went, in March, 1868, to one Graves, who was the station agent at Pottsdam of the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain road, and informed him that he wished two good "stock cars" to carry certain horses for himself and Brigham to Boston. Pratt thus testified:

"I have been for twenty years in the habit of buying horses (one or two hundred a year), and of transporting them over the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain and the Vermont Central roads to Boston. I have known Graves five or six years as station agent at Potsdam. His office was in the freight house. He always furnished me stock cars. This occurred from five to ten times a year. The cars thus furnished by him went without any change right through over these roads, and the arrangements made by him were always recognized by the roads through to Boston. A week before the horses for whose loss this suit is brought were brought to Potsdam, Mr. Graves engaged to give me two good stock cars to carry them to Boston. He did at the time appointed give me two cars, and I took my horses to them. I objected to one of the cars. Graves said that I must take it or wait for a week, as no others than these were there. I took the car rather than wait, and repaired it as well as I could. I put in some hay -- wet and rotten hay -- to keep the horses from slipping. I always did that. One of the railroad hands and I put it in on this occasion, and in full view of the office. This railroad hand had been in the service of the company for three or four years. I then told Mr. Graves that I wished to put in other horses at Rouse's Point. He agreed to this. We agreed upon the price, $85 per car, through to Boston, being the same price as if all the horses had been put in at Potsdam, the horses to be transported from Potsdam, some taken on there and some at Rouse's Point. We had passes to go on the train which took our horses. I always put my horses in and go on the cars myself to take care of the horses, or else send a man. On this occasion, Mr. Brigham was in charge all the way. I had no other man. You can't go in the same car with the horses. A place called a box car was furnished for us. The waybill was thus made out: "

Page 89 U. S. 126


"I saw the bill at Potsdam after it was made out."

The plaintiffs here put this question to the witness:

"In these acts of Graves in furnishing cars and making arrangements for transportation through to Boston as testified by you, for whom did he assume to act?"

The defendant objected to the question, asserting that the witness could be asked only as to what was said and done, and that the question was incompetent on this account, and as calling from the witness an expression of his own opinion or inference. The court admitted the question, and defendant excepting, the witness answered:

"He assumed to act for the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad Company."

In consequence of the cars' being broken and very much exposed, and sparks from the locomotive getting into them, the hay took fire and the horses were burnt to death. This took place on the road of the Vermont Central Company. Some of the horses were put in at Rouse's Point.

No freight was paid on this particular occasion at Potsdam, and indeed it was generally paid, in transactions between these parties, in the depot in Boston.

The defendants produced Graves, the station master already mentioned. He testified that there were several cars at Potsdam when Pratt brought the horses to the station, and that he could have had his choice, and as he, the

Page 89 U. S. 127

witness, supposed did have it; that all cars were examined before being sent off, and if unfit were reported; that the cars were "billed" as per the waybill above shown; that the freight might have been paid in advance, but was not; that the witness knew of no hay put into the cars; that it was against the rules of the Vermont Central road to put any litter in them. Two men were allowed to go free, one in each car.

The defendants also put in evidence certain rules printed on a single sheet, entitled "Vermont Central Railroad Special Livestock Tariff," which, after reciting certain rates of freight per ton, contained, under the head of "DIRECTIONS," the following provisions:

"In consideration of drovers' being permitted to ride free on the same train with their stock for the purpose of taking charge of it, it will in all cases be their duty or that of shippers of livestock to examine cars before loading, and if they accept them, the stock will be at their risk of loss or damage occasioned by doors' being displaced or otherwise. Hay, straw, and like combustibles will under no circumstances be allowed in a car with livestock. Persons violating this rule will not only suffer all loss which the same may cause to his or their own stock, but will be held responsible for all damage caused by such violation, whether it be to individuals or to the railroad."

They then introduced evidence tending to show that these rules were posted up in the Potsdam station, and that the plaintiffs were often there, and so must have seen them. The plaintiffs denied being often in the station house, and testified that they had never seen or heard of the said rules until after this loss occurred.

On the trial, the court having charged that the defendants would not be liable for a loss occurring on any other railway in the line unless at least they specifically and expressly contracted to transport the horses through or beyond their own road to where the accident happened; that otherwise they would be forwarders, and their liability would be discharged by safely delivering to the next road in the line, was asked by the defendants to charge further thus:

Page 89 U. S. 128

"If the jury are satisfied that the plaintiffs at Potsdam Junction, when they took the car in question, knew of its defects and that it was unsafe and liable to catch fire and burn, having full opportunity to see and examine it, and that they did see and examine it and had full knowledge of its condition, and either selected or accepted this when they might have had another car; or if they consented to take this, and were allowed to take it at their request and wish, they electing and proposing to do so, and insisting upon it rather than wait a reasonable time for another car, they by so selecting or accepting the car took their risk of these defects, and cannot recover for losses occurring because of them."

In lieu of the charge requested, the court charged as follows:

"The common carrier is bound to furnish suitable vehicles and means of transportation for the carriage of such articles as he undertakes to carry and transport. If he furnishes unsafe or unfit cars, he is not exempted from liability by the mere fact that the shipper knew them to be defective and used them. Nothing less than an agreement by the shipper to assume that risk would have that effect. In this case, if the plaintiffs expressly agree to assume the risks of defective cars rather than to wait a reasonable time for other cars, they cannot recover."

The jury found for the plaintiff, and the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad Company brought the case here on different causes of error, which were resolvable into these four questions:

1. Had the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad Company power or right to contract as a common carrier to transport the horses to Boston over another railroad and beyond its own terminus?

2. Was there competent evidence given on the trial that the company did so contract in relation to the horses in question?

3. Did the plaintiffs, by putting their horses into a car which they knew was defective and unsuitable, thereby assume the risk of such defects, and relieve the company from responsibility for the same?

Page 89 U. S. 129

4. Was there error in admitting in evidence the waybill made and forwarded with the property by the defendants or in allowing the witness to state for whom the station agent assumed to act?

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