Railway Company v. Stevens/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

95 U.S. 655

Railway Company  v.  Stevens


It is evident that the court below regarded this case as one of carriage for hire, and not as one of gratuitous carriage, and that no sufficient evidence to go to the jury was adduced to show the contrary; and, hence, that under the ruling of this court in Railroad Company v. Lockwood, 17 Wall. 357, it was a case in which the defendant, as a common carrier of passengers, could not lawfully stipulate for exemption from liability for the negligence of its servants. In taking this view, we think the court was correct. The transportation of the plaintiff in the defendant's cars, though not paid for by him in money, was not a matter of charity nor of gratuity in any sense. It was by virtue of an agreement, in which the mutual interest of the parties was consulted. It was part of the consideration for which the plaintiff consented to take the journey to Montreal. His expenses in making that journey were to be paid by the defendant, and of these the expense of his transportation was a part. The giving him a free pass did not alter the nature of the transaction. The pass was a mere ticket, or voucher, to be shown to the conductors of the train, as evidence of his right to be transported therein. It was not evidence of any contract by which the plaintiff was to assume all the risk; and it would not have been valid if it had been. In this respect it was a stronger case than that of Lockwood's. There the pass was what is called a 'drover's pass,' and an agreement was actually signed, declaring that the acceptance of the pass was to be considered as a waiver of all claims for damages or injury received on the train. The court rightly refused, therefore, in the present case, to charge that the plaintiff was travelling upon the conditions indorsed on the pass, or that, if he travelled on that pass, the defendant was free from liability. And the court was equally right in refusing to charge, that, if the plaintiff was a free or gratuitous passenger, the defendant was not liable. The evidence did not sustain any such hypothes s. It was uncontradicted, so far as it referred to the arrangement by virtue of which the journey was undertaken.

The charge actually given by the court was also free from material error. It stated the law as favorably for the defendant as the latter had a right to ask. If subject to any criticism, it is in that part in which the court supposed that the jury might find that the plaintiff was injured by the reckless misconduct and negligence of the defendant. If this degree of fault had been necessary to sustain the action, there might have been some difficulty in deducing it from the evidence. However, the condition of the track where the accident took place, without any explanation of its cause, was perhaps sufficient even for such an inference. If the defendant could have shown that the injury to the rails was the result of an accident occurring so shortly before the passage of the train as not to give an opportunity of ascertaining its existence, it did not do so, but chose to rest upon the evidence of the plaintiff. In fact, however, negligence was all that the plaintiff was bound to show; and of this there was abundant evidence to go to the jury. On the whole, therefore, we think that the charge presents no sufficient ground for setting aside the verdict. The charge, if not formally accurate, was not such as to prejudice the defendant.

It is strongly urged however, that the plaintiff, by accepting the free pass indorsed as it was, was estopped from showing that he was not to take his passage upon the terms therein expressed; or, at least, that his acceptance of the pass should be regarded as competent, if not conclusive, evidence that such a pass was in the contemplation of the parties when the arrangement for his going to Montreal was made. But we have already shown that the carrying of the plaintiff from Portland to Montreal was not a mere gratuity. To call it such would be repugnant to the essential character of the whole transaction. There was a consideration for it, both good and valuable. It necessarily follows, therefore, that it was a carrying for hire. Being such, it was not competent for the defendant, as a common carrier, to stipulate for the immunity expressed on the back of the pass. This is a sufficient answer to the argument propounded. The defendant being, by the very nature of the transaction, a common carrier for hire, cannot set up, as against the plaintiff, who was a passenger for hire, any such estoppel or agreement as that which is insisted on.

Since, therefore, from our view of the case, it is not necessary to determine what would have been the rights of the parties if the plaintiff had been a free or gratuitous passenger, we rest our decision upon Railroad Company v. Lockwood, supra. We have no doubt of the correctness of the conclusion reached in that case. We do not mean to imply, however, that we should have come to a different conclusion, had the plaintiff been a free passenger instead of a passenger for hire. We are aware that respectable tribunals have asserted the right to stipulate for exemption in such a case; and it is often asked, with apparent confidence, 'May not men make their own contracts, or, in other words, may not a man do what he will with his own?' The question, at first sight, seems a simple one. But there is a question lying behind that: 'Can a man call that absolutely his own, which he holds as a great public trust, by the public grant, and for the public use as well as his own profit?' The business of the common carrier, in this country at least, is emphatically a branch of the public service; and the conditions on which that public service shall be performed by private enterprise are not yet entirely settled. We deem it the safest plan not to anticipate questions until they fairly arise and become necessary for our decision.

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).