O'DONNELL V. ELGIN, J. & E. RY. CO., 338 U. S. 384 (1949)

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U.S. Supreme Court

O'Donnell v. Elgin, J. & E. Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 384 (1949)

O'Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co.

No. 56

Argued October 21, 1949

Decided December 12, 1949

338 U.S. 384


In an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act to recover damages for a death claimed to have been proximately caused by the breaking of an automatic coupler, the complaint mingled in a single cause of action charges of general negligence and a specific charge that defendant "carelessly and negligently" violated the Safety Appliance Act by operating a car not equipped with the prescribed coupler. The trial court denied plaintiff's request for instructions that the breaking of the coupler was negligence per se, and submitted the whole case to the jury indiscriminately as a negligence case. The jury found for defendant.

Held: as to the claim based on the Safety Appliance Act, plaintiff was entitled to a peremptory instruction that to equip a car with a coupler which broke in a switching operation was a violation of the Act, which rendered defendant liable for injuries proximately resulting therefrom, and that neither evidence of negligence nor of diligence and care was to be considered on the question of this liability. Pp. 338 U. S. 385-394.

(a) The Safety Appliance Act requires couplers which, after a secure coupling is effected, will remain coupled until set free by some purposeful act of control. Pp. 338 U. S. 387-389.

(b) A failure of equipment to perform as required by the Safety Appliance Act is, in itself, an actionable wrong, in no way dependent upon negligence and for the proximate results of which there is liability that cannot be escaped by proof of care or diligence. Pp. 338 U. S. 389-392.

(c) Pleadings will serve their purpose of sharpening and limiting the issues only if claims based on negligence are set forth separately from those based on violation of the Safety Appliance Act. P. 338 U. S. 392.

(d) Even though no objection be made to an improper pleading in a case such as this, it is almost indispensable to an intelligible charge to the jury that a clear separation between claims based on negligence and those based on violation of the Safety Appliance Act be observed and impressed. P. 338 U. S. 393.

Page 338 U. S. 385

(e) Evidence pertinent to negligence is immaterial to issues raised by a claim based on violation of the Safety Appliance Act. Pp. 338 U. S. 393-394.

171 F.2d 973 reversed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment for the defendant in an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. 171 F.2d 973. This Court granted certiorari. 337 U.S. 929. Reversed, p. 338 U. S. 394.

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