Kane v. Northern Cent Railway Company/Opinion of the Court

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Kane v. Northern Cent Railway Company by John Marshall Harlan
Opinion of the Court
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

128 U.S. 91

KANE  v.  NORTHERN CENT RAILWAY COMPANY


The circuit court proceeded upon the ground that contributory negligence upon the part of the plaintiff was so conclusively established that it would have been compelled, in the exercise of a sound judicial discretion, to set aside any verdict returned in his favor. If the evidence, giving the plaintiff the benefit of every inference to be fairly drawn from it, sustained this view, then the direction to find for the defendant was proper. Insurance Co. v. Doster, 106 U.S. 30, 32, 1 Sup. Ct. Rep. 18; Randall v. Railroad Co., 109 U.S. 478, 482, 3 Sup. Ct. Rep. 322; Anderson Co. v. Beal, 113 U.S. 227, 241, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 433; Goodlett v. Railroad Co., 122 U.S. 391, 411, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1254. But we are of opinion that the question of contributory negligence should have been submitted to the jury. It cannot be said that the plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence in staying upon Co. v. Doster, 106 U.S. 30, 32, 1 Sup. Ct. Rep. observing that a step was missing from one of the cars over which he might pass while discharging his duties. An employe upon a railroad train, likely to meet other trains, owes it to the public, as well as to his employer, not to abandon his post unnecessarily. Besides, the danger arising from the defective car was not so imminent as to subject him to the charge of recklessness in remaining at his post under the condector's assurance that the car should be removed from the train when it reached the coal-yard or junction, if, upon examining his manifests, he found that it did not contain perishable freight. Hough v. Railroad Co., 100 U.S. 224; District of Columbia v. McElligott, 117 U.S. 621, 631, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 884. But it is said that the efficient, proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff was his use of the defective appliances at the end of the car from which he fell, when he knew, and, at the moment of letting himself down from that car, should not have forgotten, as he said he did, that one of its steps was missing. It is undoubtedly the law that an employe is guilty of contributory negligence, which will defeat his right to recover for injuries sustained in the course of his employment, where such injuries substantially resulted from dangers so obvious and threatening that a reasonable prudent man, under similar circumstances, would have avoided them if in his power to do so. He will be deemed, in such case, to have assumed the risks involved in such heedless exposure of himself to danger. Hough v. Railroad Co., District of Columbia v. McElligott, and Goodlett v. Railroad Co., above cited; Railroad Co. v. Herbert, 116 U.S. 642, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 590. But in determining whether an employe has recklessly exposed himself to peril, or failed to exercise the care for his personal safety that might reasonably be expected, regard must always be had to the exigencies of his position,-indeed, to all the circumtances of the particular occasion. In the case before us, the jury may, not unreasonably, have inferred from the evidence that while the plaintiff was passing along the tops of the cars, for the purpose of reaching his post, he was so blinded or confused by the darkness, snow, and rain, or so affected by the severe cold, that he failed to observe, in time to protect himself, that the car from which he attempted to let himself down was the identical one which, during the previous part of the night, he had discovered to be without its full complement of steps. While a proper regard for his own personal safety, and his duty to his employer, required that he should bear in mind, while passing over the cars to his station, that one of them was defective in its appointments, it was also his duty to reach his post at the earliest practicable moment; for not only might the safety of the moving train have depended upon the brakemen being at their posts, but the engineer was entitled to know, as the train moved off, by signals from the brakemen, if necessary, that none of the cars constituting the trian had become detached. If it be suggested that the plaintiff ought not to have left his post and gone to the caboose when the train stopped at Coldfelters, the answer furnished by the proof is that he was justified in so doing by usage and by the extraordinary severity of the weather. And if his going back from the caboose was characterized by such haste as interfered with a critical examination of the cars as he passed over them, that may, in some measure at least, have been due to the fact that the first notice he had of the necessity of immediately returning to his post was that the train was moving off. Without further discussion of the evidence, and without intimating what ought to be the verdict upon the issue of contributory negligence, we are of opinion that the court erred in not submitting to the jury to determine whether the plaintiff in forgetting, or not recalling, at the precise moment, the fact that the car from which he attempted to let himself down was the one from which a step was missing, was in the exercise of the degree of care and caution which was incumbent upon a man of ordinary prudence in the same calling and under the circumstances in whcih he was placed. If he was, then he was not guilty of contributory negligence that would defeat his right of recovery. Judgment is reversed, and the case remanded, with directions to grant a new trial.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).