Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad Company v. Houston/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

95 U.S. 697

Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad Company  v.  Houston


If the positions most advantageous for the plaintiff be assumed as correct, that the train was moving at an unusual rate of speed, its bell not rung, and its whistle not sounded, it is still difficult to see on what ground the accident can be attributed solely to the 'negligence, unskilfulness, or criminal intent' of the defendant's engineer. Had the train been moving at an ordinary rate of speed, it would have been impossible for him to stop the engine when within four feet of the deceased. And she was at the time on the private right-of-way of the company, where she had no right to be. But, aside from this fact, the failure of the engineer to sound the whistle or ring the bell, if such were the fact, did not relieve the deceased from the necessity of taking ordinary precautions for her safety. Negligence of the company's employes in these particulars was no excuse for negligence on her part. She was bound to listen and to look, before attempting to cross the railroad track, in order to avoid an approaching train, and not to walk carelessly into the place of possible danger. Had she used her senses, she could not have failed both to hear and to see the train which was coming. If she omitted to use them, and walked thoughtlessly upon the track, she was guilty of culpable negligence, and so far contributed to her injuries as to deprive her of any right to complain of others. If, using them, she saw the train coming, and yet undertook to cross the track, instead of waiting for the train to pass, and was injured, the consequences of her mistake and temerity cannot be cast upon the defendant. No railroad company can be held for a failure of experiments of that kind. If one chooses, in such a position, to take risks, he must bear the possible consequences of failure. Upon the facts disclosed by the undisputed evidence in the case we cannot see any ground for a recovery by the plaintiff. Not even a plausible pretext for the verdict can be suggested, unless we wander from the evidence into the region of conjecture and speculation. Under these circumstances, the court would not have erred had it instructed the jury, as requested, to render a verdict for the defendant.

But the plaintiff in error specially complains that the court below gave instructions which assumed as established matters not in proof, and thus directed the attention of the jury to subjects which might mislead their judgment. Thus, while the train coming from the west could be seen, as already stated, at any point between Harris Street crossing and the section-house for a distance of three-quarters of a mile, the court in its charge assumed that the light from the train might have been obstructed by cars on the side track in the vicinity of the place where the injury was inflicted, and told them that whether the view was thus obstructed was for them to determine. Again, there was no evidence of any attempt on the part of the deceased to cross the railway at the Harris Street crossing. She was not seen, as already stated, except when leaving her house, until immediately previous to her injury, and then she was ninety feet east of the crossing. Yet the court, at the request of the plaintiff, instructed the jury, as to the right of the deceased in passing the railway upon a public crossing, to rely upon a substantial compliance by the servants of the company with the duties required by law in giving signals and warnings of approach; and as to its liability if the deceased was killed by the cars while they were running to and over a public street-crossing, without giving the required and usual signals of approach: and further instructed them, upon its own motion, that there was a controversy upon the evidence whether she crossed or attempted to cross the railway at the Harris Street crossing, or at a place not a crossing; and that this was a question of fact for their determination.

To instruct a jury upon assumed facts to which no evidence applied was error. Such instructions tended to mislead them, by withdrawing their attention from the proper points involved in the issue. Juries are sufficiently prone to indulge in conjectures, without having possible facts not in evidence suggested for their consideration. In no respect could the instructions mentioned have aided them in reaching a just conclusion.

The judgment must be reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial; and it is

So ordered.

Mr. JUSTICE HARLAN did not sit in this case.

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).