Wilkerson v. McCarthy/Dissent Jackson

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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 JACKSON, dissenting.

The trial court, after hearing all the evidence and seeing the witnesses, directed a verdict of no cause of action. The Utah Supreme Court, in a careful opinion, decided two propositions: First, whether this Court still holds that a plaintiff 'in order to recover must still show negligence on the part of the employer.' It resolved its doubts by relying upon statements of this Court to the effect that it still does adhere to that requirement. [1] Second, whether there is any evidence of negligence. On a careful analysis, it found no evidence whatever of negligence in this case. Following established principles of law, it concluded that it would have been error to let such a case go to the jury, and therefore affirmed the trial court's refusal so to do.

This Court now reverses and, to my mind at least, espouses the doctrine that any time a trial or appellate court weighs evidence or examines facts it is usurping the jury's function. But under that rule every claim of injury would require jury trial, even if the evidence showed no possible basis for a finding of negligence. Determination of whether there could be such a basis is a function of the trial court, even though it involves weighing evidence and examining facts. I think we are under a duty to examine the record impartially if we take such cases and to sustain the lower courts where, as here, a finding of negligence would obviously be without basis in fact.

I am not unaware that even in this opinion the Court continues to pay lip service to the doctrine that liability in these cases is to be based only upon fault. But its standard of fault is such in this case as to indicate that the principle is without much practical meaning.

This record shows that both the wheel pit into which plaintiff fell and the board on which he was trying to cross over the pit were blocked off by safety chains strung between posts. Plaintiff admits he knew the chains were there to keep him from crossing over the pit and to require him to go a few feet farther to walk around it. After the chains were put up, any person undertaking to use the board as a cross walk had to complete involved contortions and gymnastics, particularly when, as was the case with petitioner, a car was on the track 23 1/2. A casual examination of the model filed as an exhibit in this Court shows how difficult was such a passage. Nevertheless, the Court holds that if employees succeeded in disregarding the chains and forced passage frequently enough to be considered 'customary,' and th railroad took no further action, its failure so to do was negligence. The same rule would no doubt apply if the railroad's precautions had consisted of a barricade, or an armed guard. I think the railroad here could not fairly be found guilty of negligence and that there was no jury question.

If in this class of cases, which forms a growing proportion of its total, this Court really is applying accepted principles of an old body of liability law in which lower courts are generally experienced, I do not see why they are so baffled and confused at what goes on here. On the other hand, if this Court considers a reform of this law appropriate and within the judicial power to promulgate, I do not see why it should constantly deny that it is doing just that.

I think a comparison of the State Supreme Court's opinion, 187 P.2d 188, with the opinion of this Court will fairly raise, in the minds of courts below and of the profession, the question I leave to their perspicacity to answer: In which proposition did the Supreme Court of Utah really err?

Notes[edit]

^1  The Supreme Court of Utah considered and rejected the opinion in Griswold v. Gardner, 7 Cir., 155 F.2d 333, in which it was said:

'Any detailed review of the evidence in a case of this character for the purpose of determining the propriety of the trial court's refusal to direct a verdict would be an idle and useless ceremony in the light of the recent decisions of the Supreme Court. This is so regardless of what we might think of the sufficiency of the evidence in this respect. The fact is, so we think, that the Supreme Court has in effect converted this negli ence statute into a compensation law thereby making, for all practical purposes, a railroad an insurer of its employees. See dissent of Mr. Justice Roberts in Bailey v. Central Vermont Ry., 319 U.S. 350, 358, 63 S.Ct. 1062, 1066, 87 L.Ed. 1444.

'The Supreme Court, commencing with Tiller v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 318 U.S. 54, 63 S.Ct. 444, 87 L.Ed. 610, 143 A.L.R. 967, in a succession of cases has reversed every court (with one exception hereinafter noted) which has held that a defendant was entitled to a directed verdict. In the Tiller case, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 128 F.2d 420, which had affirmed the District Court in directing a verdict. The case, upon remand, was again tried in the court below, where a directed verdict was denied. For this denial the Court of Appeals reversed and again the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that the District Court properly submitted the case to the jury. In Tennant v. Peoria & P.U.R. Co., 321 U.S. 29, 64 S.Ct. 409, 88 L.Ed. 520, this court reversed the District Court on account of its refusal to direct a verdict, and our decision, 7 Cir., 134 F.2d 860, was reversed by the Supreme Court. In Bailey v. Central Vermont Ry., 319 U.S. 350, 63 S.Ct. 1062, 87 L.Ed. 1444, the Supreme Court of Vermont held that there should have been a directed verdict for the defendant, and the Supreme Court reversed the decision of that Court. In Blair v. Baltimore & O.R. Co., 323 U.S. 600, 65 S.Ct. 545, 89 L.Ed. 490, the Supreme Court reversed the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania which had held that there should have been a directed verdict. In the recent case of Lavender, Administrator, etc., v. Kurn et al., 327 U.S. 645, 66 S.Ct. 740, 90 L.Ed. 916, the Supreme Court reversed the Supreme Court of Missouri which had held that there should have been a directed verdict for each of the defendants.

'The only exception to this unbroken line of decisions is Brady v. Southern R. Co., 320 U.S. 476, 64 S.Ct. 232, 88 L.Ed. 239, where the Supreme Court of North Carolina was affirmed in its holding that there should have been a directed verdict. This exception, however, is of little consequence in view of the fact that four members of the court dissented.'

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).