Wilkerson v. McCarthy/Concurrence Frankfurter

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United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 53

Wilkerson  v.  McCarthy

 Argued: Dec. 6, 1948. --- Decided: Jan 31, 1949

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, concurring.

Trial by jury as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and of the several States presupposes a jury under proper guidance of a disinterested and competent trial judge. Herron v. Southern Pacific Co., 283 U.S. 91, 51 S.Ct. 383, 75 L.Ed. 857. It is an important element of trial by jury which puts upon the judge the exacting duty of determining whether there is solid evidence on which a jury's verdict could be fairly based. When a plaintiff claims that an injury which he has suffered is attributable to a defendant's negligence-want of care in the discharge of a duty which the defendant owed to him-it is the trial judge's function to determine whether the evidence in its entirety would rationally support a verdict for the plaintiff, assuming that the jury took, as it would be entitled to take, a view of the evidence most favorable to the plaintiff. If there were a bright line dividing negligence from non-negligence, there would be no problem. Only an incompetent or a wilful judge would take a case from the jury when the issue should be left to the jury. But since questions of negligence are questions of degree, often very nice differences of degree, judges of competence and conscience have in the past, and will in the future, disagree whether proof in a case is sufficient to demand submission to the jury. The fact that a third court thinks there was enough to leave the case to the jury does not indicate that the other two courts were unmindful of the jury's function. The easy but timid way out for a trial judge is to leave all cases tried to a jury for jury determination, but in so doing he fails in his duty to take a case from the jury when the evidence would not warrant a verdict by it. A timid judge, like a biased judge, is intrinsically a lawless judge.

These observations are especially pertinent to suits under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. The difficulties in these cases derive largely from the outmoded concept of 'negligence' as a working principle for the adjustments of injuries inevitable under the technological circumstances of modern industry. This cruel and wasteful mode of dealing with industrial injuries has long been displaced in industry generally by the insurance principle that underlies workmen's compensation laws. For reasons that hardly reflect due regard for the interests of railroad employees, 'negligence' remains the basis of liability for injuries to them. It is, of course, the duty of courts to enforce the Federal Employers' Liability Act, however outmoded and unjust in operation it may be. But so long as negligence rather than workmen's compensation is the basis of recovery, just so long will suits under the Federal Employers' Liability Act lead to conflicting opinions about 'fault' and 'proximate cause.' The law reports are full of unedifying proof of these conflicting views, and that too by judges who seek conscientiously to perform their duty by neither leaving everything to a jury nor, on the other hand, turning the Federal Employers' Liability Act into a workmen's compensation law.

Considering the volume and complexity of the cases which obviously call for decision by this Court, and considering the time and thought that the proper disposition of such cases demands, I do not hink we should take cases merely to review facts already canvassed by two and sometimes three courts even though those facts may have been erroneously appraised. The division in this Court would seem to demonstrate beyond peradventure that nothing is involved in this case except the drawing of allowable inferences from a necessarily unique set of circumstances. For this Court to take a case which turns merely on such an appraisal of evidence, however much hardship in the fallible application of an archaic system of compensation for injuries to railroad employees may touch our private sympathy, is to deny due regard to the considerations which led the Court to ask and Congress to give the power to control the Court's docket. Such power carries with it the responsibility of granting review only in cases that demand adjudication on the basis of importance to the operation of our federal system; importance of the outcome merely to the parties is not enough. It has been our practice to dismiss a writ of certiorari even after it was granted where argument exposed a want of conflict or revealed that the case involved no more than its particular facts. [1] I believe we should adhere to this practice in the present case.

But the importance of adhering to this practice cannot be seen in the perspective of a single case. Despite the mounting burden of the Court's business, this is the thirtieth occasion in which a petition for certiorari has been granted during the past decade to review a judgment denying recovery under the Federal Employers' Liability Act in a case turning solely on jury issues. The only petition on behalf of a carrier that brought such a case here during this period was dismissed, and rightly, as improvidently granted. McCarthy v. Bruner, 322 U.S. 718, 64 S.Ct. 1047, 88 L.Ed. 1558; 323 U.S. 673, 65 S.Ct. 126, 89 L.Ed. 547. Nor does what the United States Reports disclose regarding the disposition of petitions for certiorari tell the whole story of the Court's exercise of discretion in granting or denying them. This is so because of adherence, on the whole, to the wise practice of not publicly recording the vote of the Justices. Of course, some light on the situation is derivatively shed by the disclosed position of the Justices on the merits of the cases. But the unavailable data are, as can readily be imagined, especially relevant in the case of such a recurring problem as granting or denying certiorari under a particular statute.

I would, therefore, dismiss the petition as having been improvidently granted. Since, however, that is not to be done, I too have been obliged to recanvass the record and likewise think that there was here enough evidence to go to the jury.

Mr. Justice BURTON, having concurred in the Court's opinion, also joins this opinion.


^1  The reasons for this practice were indicated by Chief Justice Taft for a unanimous Court in Layne & Bowler Corp. v. Western Well Works, 261 U.S. 387, 393, 43 S.Ct. 422, 423, 67 L.Ed. 712:

'If it be suggested that as much effort and time as we have given to the consideration of the alleged conflict would have enabled us to dispose of the case before us on the merits, the answer is that it is very important that we be consistent in not granting the writ of certiorari except in cases involving principles the settlement of which is of importance to the public, as distinguished from that of the parties, and in cases where there is a real and embarrassing conflict of opinion and authority between the Circuit Courts of Appeals. The present case certainly comes under neither head.'

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).