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U.S. Supreme Court

Winfree v. Northern Pacific Ry. Co., 227 U.S. 296 (1913)

Winfree v. Northern Pacific Railway Company

No. 139

Submitted January 23, 1913

Decided February 24, 1913

227 U.S. 296




While there are exceptions, especially in the case of remedial statutes, the general rule is that statutes are addressed to the future, and not to the past, and, in the absence of explicit words to that effect, statutes are not retroactive in their application.

The Employers' Liability Act of 1908 introduced a new policy and radically changed existing law, and will not be construed as a remedial statute having retrospective effect.

An action brought under the Employers' Liability Act of 1908 by the personal representative of the person who was killed prior to the passage of the act cannot be sustained as stating a cause of action under the law of the state where that law gives the action to the parents.

Damages to the estate of one killed by negligence is a distinct cause of action, under the laws of the Washington, from damages to the parents of the person so killed.

173 F. 5 affirmed.

Page 227 U. S. 297

The facts, which involve the construction of the Employers' Liability Act of 1908 and whether it had a retroactive effect, are stated in the opinion.

Page 227 U. S. 300

MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Washington, Eastern Division, by plaintiff in error (herein referred to as plaintiff), as administrator of the estate of Albert E. Phipps, deceased, against defendant in error (herein referred to as defendant), for the wrongful death, it is alleged, of Albert E. Phipps, a minor, of the age of eighteen years and five months, while acting as fireman upon a freight locomotive of the defendant in the State of Washington. The negligence of defendant is alleged, and that defendant was engaged in interstate commerce; that decedent had not been emancipated nor had his parents knowledge of his employment; that they lived in the State of Wyoming,

Page 227 U. S. 301

and that the action was brought for their benefit under the provisions of the Act of Congress of April 22, 1908, entitled, "An Act Relating to the Liability of Common Carriers by Railroad to their Employees in Certain Cases."

Defendant demurred to the complaint on the ground, among others, that the Act of Congress upon which plaintiff relied was passed, approved, and became a law after plaintiff's alleged cause of action accrued, and imposed no liability therefore on defendant by reason of the facts set forth in the complaint. The demurrer was sustained, and, plaintiff refusing to plead further, judgment was entered dismissing the complaint and for costs. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment.

Plaintiff, to support his contention that the act of Congress has retroactive operation, presents a very elaborate argument based on the extensive effect which courts have given to remedial statutes, applying them, it is contended, to the past as well as to the future. The court of appeals met the argument, as we think it should be met, by saying that statutes that had received such extensive application such as were

"intended to remedy a mischief, to promote public justice, to correct innocent mistakes, to cure irregularities in judicial proceedings, or to give effect to the acts and contracts of individuals according to the intent thereof."

It is hardly necessary to say that such statutes are exceptions to the almost universal rule that statutes are addressed to the future, not to the past. They usually constitute a new factor in the affairs and relations of men, and should not be held to affect what has happened unless, indeed, explicit words be used, or by clear implication that construction be required. It is true that it is said that there was liability on the part of the defendant for its negligence before the passage of the act of Congress, and the act has only given a more efficient and

Page 227 U. S. 302

a more complete remedy. It, however, takes away material defenses -- defenses which did something more than resist the remedy; they disproved the right of action. Such defenses the statute takes away, and that none may exist in the present case is immaterial. It is the operation of the statute which determines its character. The court of appeals aptly characterized it, and we may quote from its opinion:

"It is a statute which permits recovery in cases where recovery could not be had before, and takes away from the defendant defenses which formerly were available -- defenses which, in this instance, existed at the time when the contract of service was entered into and at the time when the accident occurred."

Such a statute, under the rule of the cases, should not be construed as retrospective. It introduced a new policy and quite radically changed the existing law.

It is contended that, apart from the Act of Congress, the complaint "states a cause of action under the statutes of the State of Washington." This does not avail plaintiff. He admits that the statutes of Washington give the right of action to the father of the deceased minor, not to a personal representative. He, however, to justify his right of action, says that the compensation recovered in an action by the father of the minor belongs, under the community system, to the mother as well as to the father. But we are not informed how this, if true, gives a right of action in the administrator of the minor's estate. Damages to his estate would be a distinct cause of action from damages to his parents. Hedrick v. Ilwaco Ry. & Nav. Co., 4 Wash. 400.

Judgment affirmed.

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