Mather v. Rillston/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

156 U.S. 391

Mather  v.  Rillston

The testimony produced on the trial by the plaintiff and the defendants corroborated in all essential particulars the facts set forth in the declaration. It is not, however, as definite in its statement of the extent of the heat of the room on the day of the explosion. The declaration puts it at a very high degree Fahrenheit; and the plaintiff, who was examined on the subject, while he does not designate it by any thermometrical measurement, states that the heat from the heater and boiler was more than he could stand; and that the room was hotter than anything he had ever known before. He also testified that the machinery in the engine house was in operation all the time, in order to keep the steam in the pipes, and prevent them from freezing on the outside, and that the building was always shaking, so much so that a man's hat would not stay hung up when the machinery was in motion. He also added that he was not a miner, and did not know the first part of mining; that he had never handled any powder in blasting, or handled or worked with the caps used; that he did not know what dynamite or giant powder was made of, and never had any knowledge or experience in the use or handling of explosives, and he never was informed by the defendants or any one else of the danger he incurred in handling the powder and caps, or the danger of explosion of either from the great heat in the engine house, or from the concussion of the caps caused by its constant jarring. jarring.

It is clear from the whole evidence in the case that there was constant danger of explosion from the great heat produced in the operation of the mine, and from the concussion of the caps by collision between themselves and with other hard substances in the engine house and the powder scattered on the floor. The heat and concussion were a continuing danger to the safety of the persons employed in the mine, and of the existence of that danger the defendants were fully aware.

Rillston, the plaintiff, who was sworn as a witness in the case, testified that at the time of the explosion there was in the engine house a coil of pipe, five barrels of oil, fourteen boxes of powder, a box and a half on the shelf, about half a box on the floor, a barrel of lime, several sticks in the lime, two boxes of caps, nine rings of fuse, and that there was powder on the floor thrown around in all directions.

Mr. Sellwood, the general manager of the mine for the defendants, testified that the caps and powder were put in the engine house by his orders, and admits that the usual place previously for keeping them was at the powder magazine.

Notwithstanding the continuing danger of explosion, both from the heat in the engine house and its constant jarring, and the confused and disorderly position in which the powder and caps were placed in the engine house, it does not appear that there was any effort made by the defendants, or other acting for them, to lessen either the heat or the jarring.

The court instructed the jury that it was a question for them whether there was negligence in the conduct of the defendants in reference to the use of the exploding caps,-that is, in putting them in the engine house, and in failing to give the plaintiff due warning of their dangerous character; and the jury found against the defendants on the question thus presented to them.

All occupations producing articles or works of necessity, utility, or convenience may undoubtedly be carried on, and competent persons, familiar with the business and having sufficient skill therein, may properly be employed upon them; but in such cases, where the occupation is attended with danger to life, body, or limb, it is incumbent on the promoters thereof and the employers of others thereon to take all reasonable and needed precautions to secure safety to the persons engaged in their prosecution, and for any negligence in this respect, from which injury follows to the persons engaged, the promoters of the employers may be held responsible and mulcted to the extent of the injury inflicted. The explosive nature of the materials used in this case, and the constant danger of their explosion from heat or collision, as already explained, were well known to the employers, and were continuing admonitions to them to take every precaution to guard against explosions. Occupations, however important, which cannot be conducted without necessary danger to life, body, or limb, should not be prosecuted at all without all reasonable precautions against such dangers afforded by science. The necessary danger attending them should operate as a prohibition to their pursuit without such safeguards. Indeed, we think it may be laid down as a legal principle that in all occupations which are attended with great and unusual danger there must be used all appliances readily attainable known to science for the prevention of accidents, and that the neglect to provide such readily attainable appliances will be regarded as proof of culpable negligence. If an occupation attended with danger can be prosecuted by proper precautions without fatal results, such precautions must be taken by the promoters of the pursuit or employers of laborers thereon. Liability for injuries following a disregard of such precautions will otherwise be incurred, and this fact should not be lost sight of. So, too, if persons engaged in dangerous occupations are not informed of the accompanying dangers by the promoters thereof, or by the employers of laborers thereon, and such laborers remain in ignorance of the dangers, and suffer in consequence, the employers will also be chargeable for the injuries sustained. Both of these positions should be borne constantly in mind by those who engage laborers or agents in dangerous occupations, and by the laborers themselves, as reminders of the duty owing to them. These two conditions of liability of parties employing laborers in hazardous occupations are of the highest importance, and should be in all cases strictly enforced.

Further than this, it is plain from what has already been stated that the plaintiff knew nothing of the special dangers attending his work, or that he was at all informed by the defendants on the subject. His testimony is positive on this point, and is not contradicted by any one. With that fact shown, there was no ground for any charge of contributory negligence on his part; and with the defendants' negligence established, as stated, there could have been no serious objection to the damages awarded to the plaintiff for the dreadful injuries sustained. The sum recovered was a moderate compensation to be awarded to him.

Judgment affirmed.


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).