241 U.S. 476
36 S.Ct. 626
60 L.Ed. 1110
SAN ANTONIO & ARANSAS PASS RAILWAY
COMPANY, Plff. in Err.,
Submitted April 14, 1916.
Decided June 5, 1916.
Messrs. Robert J. Boyle, Rufus S. Day, Samuel Herrick, and A. B. Storey
for plaintiff in error.
Messrs. H. C. Carter, Perry J. Lewis, and John Sehorn for defendant in
Mr. Justice Pitney delivered the opinion of the court:
The judgment that is brought under review by this writ of error is the outcome
of an action begun in the district court of Bexar county, Texas, by defendant in
error against plaintiff in error, resulting in a judgment in his favor. This was
affirmed by the court of civil appeals, a rehearing was denied (166 S. W. 24,
28), and our writ of error is directed to that court because the supreme court of
Texas refused to review the judgment.
We shall describe the parties according to their attitude in the trial court.
Plaintiff's petition alleged that on October 18, 1911, he was employed as a
brakeman by defendant, a common carrier by railroad engaged in both
interstate and intrastate commerce; that defendant had in use in both kinds of
commerce a certain engine and a certain car, and it became plaintiff's duty to
couple them together; that the couplers would not couple automatically by
impact, as required by law, 'and for the purpose of making said coupling it
became necessary for the plaintiff to stand upon the footboard of said engine,
between said engine and car, and to shove the knuckle of the coupler on said
engine so as to bring it into proper position to make the coupling as aforesaid;'
that plaintiff placed his left foot against the knuckle of the coupler of the
engine for the purpose of pushing it into position, when he lost his balance,
slipped and fell, and his left foot was caught between the couplers and crushed.
Defendant interposed a general denial and certain special defenses, which latter
were struck out on demurrer. They set up that defendant was a common carrier
engaged in interstate commerce, and invoked the provisions of the Federal
safety appliance act of March 2, 1893 (chap. 196, 27 Stat. at L. 531, Comp.
Stat. 1913, § 8605), and the amendment of March 2, 1903 (chap. 976, 32 Stat.
at L. 943, Comp. Stat. 1913, § 8613), averring that all couplers attached to
railroad engines, tenders, or cars must have sufficient lateral motion to permit
trains to round the curves, and must be provided with adjustable knuckles
which can be opened and closed, and such couplers must be adjusted at times in
order that they may couple automatically by impact, and that there is no kind of
automatic coupler constructed or that can be constructed which will couple
automatically at all times without previous adjustment, because of the lateral
play necessary to enable coupled cars to round curves; that the engine and car
upon which plaintiff was employed at the time of his injury were engaged in
interstate commerce, and were equipped with automatic couplers which would
couple automatically by impact as required by the acts of Congress, but an
adjustment was necessary for this purpose, and could have been made by the
plaintiff going between the cars while they were standing, but without going
between the ends of the cars while in motion, or between a moving engine and
cars, and without kicking the coupling or in any manner endangering his own
personal safety; with more to the same effect.
At the trial the evidence tended to show that plaintiff was engaged in switching
at one of defendant's yards, and was riding upon the footboard at the rear of the
engine in order to make a coupling between it and a box car; that at the first
impact—to use plaintiff's words—'the coupling wouldn't make; I coupled up
against them but it wouldn't make.' He then signaled the engineer to draw
ahead, and this having been done, he adjusted the knuckle and pin upon the box
car, and 'I gave the engineer a back-up signal to couple in again, and I got back
on the footboard of the engine; when I got on the footboard I looked down and
I seen the drawhead on the engine was shifted way over to my side, and I
reached up with my left foot to shift the drawhead over so it would couple, and
my right foot slipped on the wet footboard;' as a result of which his left foot
was caught between the drawheads and crushed. He testified that at the first
impact the drawhead on the engine was in line with that on the box car, and
that the only thing that prevented the coupling at this time was the failure of the
pin on the box car to drop. And further: 'When the coupling apparatus of these
automatic couplers are in proper condition and they are properly connected,
they couple by impact automatically; . . . when the brakeman couples a car, he
pulls a lever on the outside of the car; that opens the knuckle—that raises the
pin and opens the coupler up; then all he has to do is to give a signal and they
back right up. He has nothing to do with reference to fixing the knuckle, or
anything of that sort.' He testified in effect that the coupler was out of order.
The court of civil appeals held that, so far as this was opinion evidence, it was
admissible as the opinion of a qualified expert, plaintiff having been employed
by defendant as a brakeman for eight years, and being acquainted with the
operation of couplers. A witness called by defendant testified: 'These couplers
are made to couple automatically by impact,—they are supposed to be in such
condition as that, so when they come together they will couple without the
necessity of men going in between the cars to couple or uncouple, and should
be in that condition. If they do not couple with the automatic impact, they are
not in proper condition.'
The trial court instructed the jury that if the locomotive and car in question
were not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact without the
necessity of plaintiff going between the ends of the cars, and by reason of this
and as a proximate result of it plaintiff received his injuries, the verdict should
be in his favor; otherwise in favor of defendant; and that the burden of proof
was upon plaintiff to establish his case by a preponderance of the evidence.
The court of civil appeals treated the case as coming within the Federal
employers' liability act of April 22, 1908 (chap. 149, 35 Stat. at L. 65, Comp.
Stat. 1913, § 8657), and the assignments of error in this court and the argument
thereon proceed upon that basis. We shall decide the case upon that
assumption, although we find nothing in the record to show that, in fact,
plaintiff was employed in interstate commerce at the time he was injured. We
are asked to take notice of the omission of pleading and proof of the fact as a
'plain error,' and deal with it, although not assigned, under paragraph 4 of our
Rule 21. We must decline to do this, principally for two reasons: (a) The
omission may have been due to an oversight that would have been corrected if
the point had been properly raised by the present plaintiff in error in the state
courts. (b) Since the safety appliance acts are in any event applicable,—
defendant's railroad being admittedly a highway of interstate commerce,—
whether plaintiff was employed in such commerce or not (Texas & P. R. Co. v.
Rigsby, 241 U. S. 33, 42, 60 L. ed. ——, 36 Sup. Ct. Rep. 482), the only
materiality of the question whether the employers' liability act also applies is in
its bearing upon the defense of contributory negligence; the former act leaving
that defense untouched (Schlemmer v. Buffalo, R. & P. R. Co. 220 U. S. 590,
596, 55 L. ed. 596, 600, 31 Sup. Ct. Rep. 561), while the latter (§ 3, 35 Stat. at
L. 66, Comp. Stat. 1913, § 8659) abolishes it in any case where the violation by
the carrier of a statute enacted for the safety of employees may contribute to the
injury or death of an employee, and in other cases limits its effect to the
diminution of the damages. Now, an examination of the record discloses that
defendant at the trial raised no question of contributory negligence. Such
negligence was averred in the special defenses that were struck out, but not as
constituting a defense against a violation of the safety appliance acts; and the
special defenses contained an allegation to the effect that, at the time of his
injury, plaintiff was engaged in interstate commerce. In this state of the record,
we do not deem it proper to consider the omission to plead or prove that
plaintiff's injury occurred in interstate commerce, as a ground for reversing the
judgment, it not having been made the basis of any assignment of error.
In the court of civil appeals, as in this court, error was assigned upon the action
of the trial court in striking out the special defenses. The appellate court held,
however, that, under the general denial, defendant was at liberty to show all
that had been averred in the special defenses respecting the couplers, and that it
was permitted to prove all that it offered upon that subject. It is insisted here,
and the insistence is many times repeated, that the trial court refused to admit in
evidence testimony offered to show that all automatic couplers necessarily
require adjustment at times in order that they may operate automatically upon
impact, and that the adjustment is accomplished by means of hand levers fitted
to the cars and operated by the trainmen without going between the cars; the
object being to show that the engine and car were equipped as required by law,
and that the drawbar on the engine was thrown out of line by reason of
plaintiff's failure to use the hand lever on the box car in preparation for the first
impact. It is insisted, also, that certain testimony with reference to adjusting
couplers on engines and cars, made necessary by lateral play, in order that they
might couple automatically by impact, having been admitted, was afterwards
excluded as inadmissible. There is nothing in the certified transcript to sustain
either of these contentions. There is an assertion to the same effect in the
motion for rehearing filed in the court of civil appeals, where it was stated that
the exclusion of the testimony would be made to appear by reference to the
stenographer's official report of the trial. The court of civil appeals declared,
however, that no such document had been filed or would be filed in that court;
proceeding thus: 'This cause has been considered on the agreed statement of
facts, approved by the trial judge, and the effect of such statement of facts
cannot be impaired or destroyed by a document not filed among the papers, and
which has no place among the papers. The statement of facts bears out the
statement of this court that appellant was permitted to introduce all the
testimony it desired on the subject of the coupler on the engine. The record
fails to show that any testimony offered by appellant was withdrawn by the
court from the jury.'
Eliminating, therefore, because unsupported by anything in the record, the
insistence that appellant was deprived of the opportunity of presenting at the
trial the matters that had been set up in the special defenses, the remaining
questions are few and easily disposed of.
There was sufficient evidence to warrant the jury in finding that the coupler
upon the box car or that upon the engine, or both, were in bad repair, and that
for this reason they did not measure up to the standard prescribed by the act of
March 2, 1893, for such equipment, viz.: 'Couplers coupling automatically by
impact, and which can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going
between the ends of the cars.' This standard was, by the 1st section of the 1903
amendment, made to apply 'in all cases, whether or not the couplers brought
together are of the same kind, make, or type;' and was extended to 'all trains,
locomotives, tenders, cars, and similar vehicles used on any railroad engaged in
interstate commerce, . . . and to all other locomotives, tenders, cars, and similar
vehicles used in connection therewith,' subject to an exception not now material.
As has been held repeatedly, this amendment enlarged the scope of the original
act so as to embrace all locomotives, cars, and similar vehicles used on any
railway that is a highway of interstate commerce, whether the particular
vehicles are at the time employed in interstate commerce or not. Southern R.
Co. v. United States, 222 U. S. 20, 26, 56 L. ed. 72, 74, 32 Sup. Ct. Rep. 2, 3
N. C. C. A. 822; Texas & P. R. Co. v. Rigsby, 241 U. S. 33, 37, 60 L. ed. ——,
36 Sup. Ct. Rep. 482.
That the act requires locomotives to be equipped with automatic couplers, and
that its protection extends to men when coupling as well as when uncoupling
cars, are points set at rest by Johnson v. Southern P. Co. 196 U. S. 1, 15, 18, 49
L. ed. 363, 368, 369, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 158, 17 Am. Neg. Rep. 412.
It is insisted that neither the original act nor the amendment precludes
adjustment of the coupler prior to or at the time of impact, or treats a drawbar
out of alignment as a defect in the automatic coupler, or as evidence that the
cars are not equipped with couplers measuring up to the statutory standard. The
evidence of bad repair in the automatic equipment was not confined to the fact
that the drawbar on the engine was out of line; the fact that the coupling pin on
the box car failed to drop as it should have done at the first impact, and
required manipulation in preparation for the second impact, together with the
fact that the drawbar on the engine was so far out of line as to require
adjustment in preparation for the second impact, and the opinion evidence,
being sufficient to sustain a finding that the equipment was defective. The jury
could reasonably find that the misalignment of the drawbar was greater than
required to permit the rounding of curves, or, if not, that an adjusting lever
should have been provided upon the engine as upon the car, and that there was
none upon the engine. We need not in this case determine, what was conceded
in Chicago, R. I. & P. R. Co. v. Brown, 229 U. S. 317, 320, 57 L. ed. 1204,
1205, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 840, 3 N. C. C. A. 826, that the failure of a coupler to
work at any time sustains a charge that the act has been violated.
It is argued that in actions based upon the employers' liability act the defendant
cannot be held liable without evidence of negligence; Seaboard Air Line R. Co.
v. Horton, 233 U. S. 492, 501, 58 L. ed. 1062, 1068, L.R.A.1915C, 1, 34 Sup.
Ct. Rep. 635, Ann. Cas. 1915B, 475, 8 N. C. C. A. 834, being cited. But in that
case, as the opinion shows (p. 507), there was no question of a violation of any
provision of the safety appliance act; and in what was said (p. 501) respecting
the necessity of showing negligence, reference was had to causes of action
independent of that act. The employers' liability act, as its 4th section very
clearly shows, recognizes that rights of action may arise out of the violation of
the safety appliance act. As was stated in Texas & P. R. Co. v. Rigsby, 241 U.
S. 33, 39, 60 L. ed. ——, 36 Sup. Ct. Rep. 482, 484,—'A disregard of the
command of the statute [safety appliance act] is a wrongful act, and where it
results in damage to one of the class for whose especial benefit the statute was
enacted, the right to recover the damages from the party in default is implied.'
If this act is violated, the question of negligence in the general sense of want of
care is immaterial. 241 U. S. 43, and cases there cited. But the two statutes are
in pari materia, and where the employers' liability act refers to 'any defect or
insufficiency, due to its negligence, in its cars, engines, appliances,' etc., it
clearly is the legislative intent to treat a violation of the safety appliance act as
'negligence,' what is sometimes called negligence per se.
In various forms plaintiff in error raises the contention that it was plaintiff's
improper management of the coupling operation that was the proximate cause
of his injury. But any misconduct on his part was no more than contributory
negligence, which, as already shown, is, by the employers' liability act,
excluded from consideration in a case such as this.