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U.S. Supreme Court

Northern Pacific Railroad Co. v. Freeman, 174 U.S. 379 (1899)

Northern Pacific Railroad Co. v. Freeman

No. 241

Argued and submitted April 18, 1899

Decided May 16, 1899

174 U.S. 379


A highway in the State of Washington crossed the Northern Pacific Railroad at about right angles. It approached the railroad through a deep descending cut, and the track was not visible to one driving down until he had reached a point about forty feet from it. Freeman was driving a pair of horses in a farm wagon down this descent. When he emerged from the cut and reached the point from which an approaching train was visible, he was looking ahead at his horses. A train was coming up. The conductor, the engineer and the fireman testified that the whistle was blown. Three witnesses, who were not in the employ of the railroad, and who were in a position to have heard a whistle if it had been blown, testified that they did not hear it. When Freeman became conscious of the approaching train, he tried to avoid it, but it was too late, and he was struck by the train and was killed. So far as there was any oral testimony on the subject, it tended to show that Freeman neither stopped, looked, nor listened before attempting to cross the track. Held that the testimony tending to show contributory negligence on the part of Freeman was conclusive, and that nothing remained for the jury, and that the company was entitled to an instruction to return a verdict in its favor.

Page 174 U. S. 380

This as an action by the widow and minor children of Thomas A. Freeman, originally brought in the Circuit Court for the District of Washington against the receiver of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company and subsequently, after the discharge of the receiver, continued against the Northern Pacific Railway Company, purchaser at the foreclosure sale, which, by virtue of the provisions of the decree of sale, had assumed the liabilities of the receiver. The object of the action was to recover damages on account of the death of Thomas A. Freeman, which was alleged to have occurred by reason of the negligence of the company.

The accident occurred at a highway crossing near the eastern corporate limits of the Town of Elma, in the County of Chehalis, in the State of Washington at a point where the highway crosses the railway track nearly at right angles.

Upon the trial, counsel for the railway company asked the court to instruct the jury to return a verdict for the defendant, upon the ground that the undisputed testimony showed that the deceased, as he approached the railway crossing, did not look up or down the track, and did not see the train which was approaching in full view, and therefore was guilty of such contributory negligence as to preclude the plaintiffs from recovering damages. This the court refused, but left the case to the jury under the following instruction, to which exception was taken:

"Where a party cannot see the approach of a train on account of intervening objects, he may rely upon his ears, and whether he should have stopped and listened under the circumstances is for you, and if you believe from the evidence that deceased, Thomas A. Freeman, acted as a man of ordinary care and prudence would have done as he approached the crossing, then your verdict should be for the plaintiffs, in case you find that the defendants were negligent and that the collision was due to their negligence."

Counsel further excepted to the following instruction:

"There has been some testimony tending to show that the deceased might have seen the approaching train some feet before he reached the track. If you believe that the deceased could have seen the approaching train when he was within a few

Page 174 U. S. 381

feet of the track, then it is for you to say, under all the circumstances, whether he used reasonable precaution and care to avoid the collision."

Exception was also taken to an instruction to the jury upon the subject of damages, which does not become material here.

Plaintiffs recovered a verdict, upon which judgment was entered for $9,000. The judgment was affirmed on writ of error by the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth circuit, one judge dissenting. 83 F. 82.

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