Missouri Pacific Railway Company v. Humes/Opinion of the Court

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Missouri Pacific Railway Company v. Humes by Stephen Johnson Field
Opinion of the Court
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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

115 U.S. 512

MISSOURI PACIFIC RAILWAY COMPANY  v.  HUMES

 Argued: November 23, 1885. ---


The ruling below on the objections to the validity of the statute of Missouri, so far as they are founded on its asserted conflict with the constitution of that state, is not open to review here. As the case comes from a state court, our jurisdiction is limited to the objection that the statute violates the first section of the fourteenth amendment of the constitution of the United States, in that it deprives the defendant of property without due process of law, so far as it allows a recovery of damages for stock killed or injured in excess of its value, and also in that it denies to the defendant the equal protection of the laws. That section, in declaring that no state shall 'deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,' differs from similar clauses in the constitution of every state, only in that they apply merely to the state authorities. The same meaning, however, must be given to the words 'due process of law' found in all of them.

It would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to give to those words a definition, at once accurate, and broad enough to cover every case. This difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, was referred to by Mr. Justice MILLER in Davidson v. New Orleans, where the opinion was expressed that it is wiser to ascertain their intent and application by the 'gradual process of judicial inclusion and exclusion, as the cases presented for decision shall require, with the reasoning on which such decisions may be founded.' 96 U.S. 97-104. In England the requirement of due process of law, in cases where life, liberty and property were affected, was originally designed to secure the subject against the arbitrary action of the crown, and to place him under the protection of the law. The words were held to be the equivalent of 'law of the land.' And a similar purpose must be ascribed to them when applied to a legislative body in this country; that is, that they are intended, in addition to other guaranties of private rights, to give increased security against the arbitrary deprivation of life or liberty, and the arbitrary spoliation of property. But, from the number of instances in which these words are invoked to set aside the legislation of the states, there is abundant evidence, as observed by Mr. Justice MILLER, in the case referred to, 'that there exists some strange misconception of the scope of this provision, as found in the fourteenth amendment.' It seems, as he states, to be looked upon 'as a means of bringing to the test of the decision of this court the abstract opinions of every unsuccessful litigant in a state court of the justice of the decision against him, and of the merits of the legislation on which such a decision may be founded.'

This language was used in 1877, and now, after the lapse of eight years, it may be repeated with an expression of increased surprise at the continued misconception of the purpose of the provision. If the laws enacted by a state be within the legitimate sphere of legislative power, and their enforcement be attended with the observance of those general rules which our system of jurisprudence prescribes for the security of private rights, the harshness, injustice, and oppressive character of such laws will not invalidate them as affecting life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Within the present century, the punishment of death or long imprisonment was inflicted in England for many offenses which are not now visited with any severer penalty than a fine or a short confinement, yet no one has ever pretended that life or liberty was taken thereby without due process of law. And it often happens that heavy and oppressive burdens are imposed by statute upon residents of cities and counties, not merely to meet the necessary expenses of government, but for buildings and improvements of doubtful advantage, which sometimes, as in changing the grade of streets, seriously depreciate the value of property. Yet, if no rule of justice is violated in the provisions for the enforcement of such a statute, its operation, in lessening the value of the property affected, does not bring it under the objection of depriving a person of property without due process of law. It is hardly necessary to say that the hardship, impolicy, or injustice of state laws is not necessarily an objection to their constitutional validity; and that the remedy for evils of that character is to be sought from state legislatures. Our jurisdiction cannot be invoked unless some right claimed under the constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States is invaded. This court is not a harbor where refuge can be found from every act of ill-advised and oppressive state legislation.

It is the duty of every state to provide, in the administration of justice, for the redress of private wrongs; yet the damages which should be awarded to the injured party are not always readily ascertainable. They are in many cases a matter of conjectural estimate, in relation to which there may be great differences of opinion. The general rule undoubtedly is that they should be precisely commensurate with the injury. Yet in England and in this country they have been allowed in excess of compensation, whenever malice, gross neglect, or oppression has caused or accompanied the commission of the injury complained of. 'The law,' says Sedgwick, in his excellent treatise on Damages, 'permits the jury to give what it terms punitory, vindictive, or exemplary damages; in other words, blends together the interests of society and of the aggrieved individual, and gives damages, not only to recompense the sufferer, but to punish the offender.' The discretion of the jury in such cases is not controlled by any very definite rules; yet the wisdom of allowing such additional damages to be given is attested by the long continuance of the practice. 'We are aware,' said Mr. Justice GRIER, in Day v. Woodworth, speaking for this court, 'that the propriety of this doctrine has been questioned by some writers; but if repeated judicial decisions for more than a century are to be received as the best exposition of what the law is, the question will not admit of argument. By the common as well as by statute law, men are often punished for aggravated misconduct or lawless acts by means of a civil action, and the damages inflicted by way of penalty or punishment given to the party injured.' 13 How. 371. See, also, Milwaukee & St. P. Ry. Co. v. Arms, 91 U.S. 489.

For injuries resulting from a neglect of duties, in the discharge of which the public is interested, juries are also permitted to assess exemplary damages. These may perhaps be considered as failling under the head of cases of gross negligence, for any neglect of duties imposed for the protection of life or property is culpable, and deserves punishment. The law of Missouri, in requiring railroad corporations to erect fences where their roads pass through, along, or adjoining inclosed or cultivated fields or uninclosed lands, with openings or gates at farm crossings, and to construct and maintain cattle-guards, where fences are required, sufficient to keep horses, cattle, and other animals from going on the roads, imposes a duty, in the performance of which the public is largely interested. Authority for exacting it is found in the general police power of the state to provide against accidents to life and property in any business or employment, whether under the charge of private persons or of corporations. Under this power the state, or the municipality exercising a delegated authority, prescribes the manner in which buildings in cities shall be constructed, and the thickness and height of their walls; excludes the use of all inflammable materials; forbids the storage therein of powder, nitroglycerine, and other explosive substances; and compels the removal of decayed vegetable and animal matter which would otherwise infect the air and engender disease. In few instances could the power be more wisely or beneficently exercised than in compelling railroad corporations to inclose their roads with fences, having gates at crossings, and cattle-guards. The speed and momentum of the locomotive render such protection against accident in thickly settled portions of the country absolutely essential.

The omission to erect and maintain such fences and cattle-guards in the face of the law would justly be deemed gross negligence, and if, in such cases, where injuries to property are committed, something beyond compensatory damages may be awarded to the owner by way of punishment for the company's negligence, the legislature may fix the amount or prescribe the limit within which the jury may exercise their discretion. The additional damages being by way of punishment, it is clear that the amount may be thus fixed; and it is not a valid objection that the sufferer instead of the state receives them. That is a matter on which the company has nothing to say. And there can be no rational ground for contending that the statute deprives it of property without due process of law. The statute only fixes the amount of the penalty in damages proportionate to the injury inflicted. In actions for the injury, the company is afforded every facility for presenting its defense. The power of the state to impose fines and penalties for a violation of its statutory requirements is coeval with government; and the mode in which they shall be enforced, whether at the suit of a private party or at the suit of the public, and what disposition shall be made of the amounts collected, are merely matters of legislative discretion. The statutes of nearly every state of the Union provide for the increase of damages where the injury complained of results from the neglect of duties imposed for the better, security of life and property, and make that increase in many cases double, in some cases treble, and even quadruple the actual damages. And experience favors this legislation as the most efficient mode of preventing, with the least inconvenience, the commission of injuries. The decisions of the highest courts have affirmed the validity of such legislation. The injury actually received is often so small that in many cases no effort would be made by the sufferer to obtain redress, if the private interest were not supported by the imposition of punitive damages.

The objection that the statute of Missouri violates the clause of the fourteenth amendment, which prohibits, a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, is as untenable as that which we have considered. The statute makes no discrimination against any railroad company in its requirements. Each company is subject to the same liability, and from each the same security, by the erection of fences, gates, and cattle-guards, is exacted when its road passes through, along, or adjoining inclosed or cultivated fields or uninclosed lands. There is no evasion of the rule of equality where all companies are subjected to the same duties and liabilities under similar circumstances. See, on this point, Barbier v. Connolly, 113 U.S. 27; S.C.. 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 357; and Soon Hing v. Crowley, 113 U.S. 703; S.C.. 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 730.

Judgment affirmed.

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).