Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company v. Wilson/Opinion of the Court
This is an action for personal injuries, brought under the Hours of Service Act, March 4, 1907, chap. 2939, § 2, 34 Stat. at L. 1415, 1416, Comp. Stat. 1913, §§ 8677, 8678, and the Employers' Liability Act, April 22, 1908, chap. 149, 35 Stat. at L. 65, Comp. Stat. 1913, § 8657. There is a count alleging an improper construction of tracks, and there are others, which alone are of importance here, alleging that the plaintiff was kept on duty for more than sixteen hours, and subsequently (we may take it in fact to have been fourteen hours later) put on duty again and injured because he was so exhausted as to be unable to protect himself in the work that he was attempting to perform. At the trial the judge instructed the jury that if they found that the defendant had been guilty of the breach of duty alleged, and that the breach proximately contributed to the plaintiff's injury, then they should not consider negligence, if any, on the part of the plaintiff, in determining the amount of the plaintiff's damages, if any. In other words, under § 3 of the Employers' Liability Act, he allowed a violation of a statute enacted for the safety of employees to be found to exclude contributory negligence, although at the time of the accident the violation was fourteen hours old.
It is not important to give the particulars of the accident. The plaintiff was a freight conductor, and was intending to cut a car with a hot box out of a train. He stood on the running board at the rear of an engine on a side track until it drifted abreast of the car standing on the main track, when he stepped off and was very badly hurt.
The first step in the railroad's real defense was that the plaintiff was not kept on duty more than sixteen hours,-a proposition that there was substantial evidence to maintain. But that having been overthrown by the verdict, it contends that the injury must happen during the violation of law, or at least that the Hours of Service Law fixes the limit of possible connection between the overwork and the injury at ten hours by the provision that an employee, after being continuously on duty for sixteen hours, shall have at least ten consecutive hours off. It also objects that the plaintiff, if feeling incompetent to work, should have notified the defendant. But no reason can be given for limiting liability to injuries happening while the violation of law is going on, and as to the ten hours, the statute fixes only a minimum, and a minimum for rest after work no longer than allowed. It has nothing to do with the question of the varying rest needed after work extended beyond the lawful time. In this case there was evidence that whether technically on duty or not, the plaintiff had been greatly overtaxed before the final strain of more than sixteen hours, and that, as a physical fact, it was far from impossible that the fatigue should have been a cause proximately contributing to all that happened. If so, then by the Employers' Liability Act, §§ 3 and 4, questions of negligence and assumption of risk disappear.