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U.S. Supreme Court

New England Railroad Co. v. Conroy, 175 U.S. 323 (1899)

New England Railroad Co. v. Conroy

No. 42

Argued April 3-4, 1899

Decided December 4, 1899

175 U.S. 323


The negligence of a conductor of a freight train is the negligence of a fellow servant of a brakeman on the same train, who was killed by an accident occurring through that negligence.

The negligence of such conductor is not the negligence of the vice or substituted principal or representative of the railroad company running the train, and for which that corporation is responsible.

The general rule of law is that one who enters the service of another takes upon himself the ordinary risks of the negligent acts of his fellow servants in the course of the employment.

An employer is not liable for an injury to one employee occasioned by the negligence of another engaged in the same general undertaking; it is not necessary that the servants should be engaged in the same operation or particular work; it is enough, to bring the case within the general rule of exemption, if they are in the employment of the same master, engaged in the same common enterprise, both employed to perform duties tending to accomplish the same general purposes, or, in other words, if the services of each in his particular sphere or department are directed to the accomplishment of the same general end, and accordingly, in the present case, upon the facts stated, the conductor and the injured brakeman are to be considered fellow servants within the rule.

While the opinion in Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Co. v. Ross, 112 U. S. 377, contains a lucid exposition of many of the established rules regulating the relations between masters and servants, and particularly

Page 175 U. S. 324

as respects the duties of railroad companies to their various employees, it went too far in holding that a conductor of a freight train is, ipso facto, a vice principal of the company and insofar as it is to be understood as laying down, as a rule of law to govern in the trial of actions against railroad companies, that the conductor, merely from his position as such, is a vice principal whose negligence is that of the company, it must be deemed to have been overruled, in effect if not in terms, in the subsequent case of Baltimore & Ohio Railroad v. Baugh, 149 U. S. 368.

This was an action against a railroad corporation by a brakeman in its employ to recover damages for a personal injury caused by the negligence of the conductor of one of its trains.

The facts in this case, as stated in the certificate of the circuit court of appeals, were as follows:

"On the 15th day of December, 1894, a freight train of the defendant company, drawn by a steam locomotive, and carrying an engineer, a fireman, three brakemen, and a conductor, set out from Worcester, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for the City of Providence, in the State of Rhode Island. The train, which consisted of the locomotive and tender, thirteen or fourteen freight cars, and a caboose car, was heavily loaded with freight. The train left Worcester at about 7.15 P.M. and proceeded on its way without accident until when, at a point on the railroad in the State of Rhode Island away from telegraphic communication and not at a station, and distant from Providence about sixteen miles, the engineer discovered by the motion and behavior of the locomotive that the train had broken apart. He immediately gave signals with the whistle to indicate to the trainmen upon the rear portion of the train that it was broken off, and continued to repeat those signals, which consisted of three rapid blasts of the whistle with very brief intervals between the different threes, while the locomotive and the one car which remained connected ran three quarters of a mile. The locomotive with the connected car ran about two and three-quarters miles when the engineer, not being able to see anything of the separated part of the train, and supposing that his signals had been heard and its advance stopped, slowed up the engine preparatory to sending the fireman back

Page 175 U. S. 325

with the lantern and to take steps for restoring the connection of the parts of the train. Before speed had been so reduced that the fireman could alight from the train, the rear portion was discovered close at hand and approaching at great speed. The fireman gave notice of this fact and a signal for the locomotive to go ahead, but before it could gain speed to get away, a collision between the two parts of the train took place, and one Gregory, a brakeman, who was on the top of the car still attached to the engine, was thrown from the car by the shock and instantly killed."

"The three brakemen on the train were a head, a middle, and a rear brakeman. Gregory was the head brakeman, and at once, on discovery of the separation of the train, went to the top of the only car left with the engine. The conductor and the middle and rear brakemen had been riding in the caboose car at the rear end of the train, and did not hear the warning signals which the engineer gave with the whistle, nor know that the train had broken until the collision, but remained all the time in the caboose. The night was cold and clear. The accident was near midnight."

"The negligence complained of consisted in the alleged failure of the conductor in control of the men and in charge of the train, in view of the character of the night, the character of the road in respect to grades and curves, the speed at which the train was run, and the liability of the train to part asunder at that place, to properly watch and supervise its movements, and the fact that he, in the full knowledge that the rear and middle brakemen were in the caboose, away from their brakes, permitted them to remain there, and failed to order them to the brakes."

The jury were instructed:

"The conductor of the train, under the rules laid down by the rules of the Supreme Court of the United States, is in a peculiar and special condition. The conductor of the train, as I understand the theory of the rule of the Supreme Court of the United States, is, in a certain sense, between stations at least, is in a certain sense like the master of a ship on a voyage; he is beyond the reach of orders when running his train between stations, and therefore

Page 175 U. S. 326

as a matter of necessity, as a matter of public policy, I suppose, he must be held to stand in the place of the corporation itself. . . . If you find in this particular case, from the evidence in the case and such common knowledge as jurymen are entitled to use, that, by the rules of this road . . . , the conductor gave directions to the people who worked on the train, gave directions to start the train, gave directions to stop the train, gave directions as to the location and position of the different men on the train, and also had the general management of the train and control over it when running between stations, then I say to you, gentlemen, that he, for this case, represents the company, and if injuries resulted from his negligent acts, the company is responsible."

The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and assessed damages in the sum of $4,250.

The defendant brought the case by writ of error to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

And upon consideration of the case, after full argument, the judges of that court desired the instructions of the Supreme Court upon the following questions of law arising on the facts as before stated:

1st. Whether the negligence of the conductor was the negligence of a fellow servant of the deceased brakeman?

2d. Whether the negligence of the conductor was the negligence of its vice or substituted principal or representative, for which the corporation is responsible?

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