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U.S. Supreme Court

Railroad Company v. Pollard, 89 U.S. 22 Wall. 341 341 (1874)

Railroad Company v. Pollard

89 U.S. (22 Wall.) 341




1. Stokes v. Saltonstall, 13 Pet. 181, affirmed, and on a suit for injury to person, against a railway company carrying passengers, the doctrine again declared to be that if the passenger is in the exercise of that degree of care which may reasonably be expected from a person in his situation, and injury occur to him, this is prima facie evidence of the carrier's liability.

2. Whether a passenger in a rail car, standing up in it, when getting into the station house at the close of the journey but before an actual stoppage of the car, is guilty of negligence in the circumstances of the case is a question of fact for the jury to decide under proper instructions.

Page 89 U. S. 342

3. In courts of the United States under section 858 of the Revised Statutes, which enact (with a proviso excepting to a certain extent suits by or against executors, administrators or guardians) that in those courts, no witness shall be excluded in any civil action because he is a party to or interested in the issue tried, parties to a civil suit (the suit not being one of the sort excepted by or against executors or guardians), may testify by deposition as well as orally, there being, under the Act of Congress, no difference between them and other persons having no interest in the suit.

By the practice in the courts of New Jersey, after a plaintiff rests his case, the defendant may move for a nonsuit, and if the court refuses to grant one, a bill of exceptions may be asked for, and on writ of error brought, the plaintiff in error may assign for error the refusal to grant the nonsuit.

By an Act of Congress approved June 1, 1872, [Footnote 1] it is enacted

"That the practice . . . and forms and modes of proceeding &c. in the circuit . . . courts of the United States shall conform as near as may be to the practice . . . and forms and modes of proceeding existing at the time in like cases in the courts of record of the state within which such circuit courts are held."

In this state of the law, in June, 1871, Mrs. Pollard, a resident of Chicago, had taken passage by railroad on a connecting line of roads, one of which was owned by the New Jersey Railroad Company (the defendant in this case), for herself, her two sisters, and her own daughter, a child of about thirteen years old, from Chicago via Philadelphia to New York, the purpose of the journey being refreshment in the summer and general improvement to health. The traveling party were in a Pullman palace car, and occupied what is known as a "section" of it. This section was near the middle of the last car of the train,

Page 89 U. S. 343

where it was used for traveling and not for sleeping. It had two double seats, one at each end of the section, facing each other, so that persons who occupied the seat nearest the forward part of the car had to ride with their backs to the engine.

On the arrival of the party at Philadelphia, the train was composed of five passenger cars and a baggage car. But it being now the season of fruit, five fruit cars were added to the train before setting off for New York, these being put on to it between the locomotive and the passenger train. The train thus made up had in it eleven cars. Some freight cars were added afterwards.

Continuing their journey towards New York by night, when the train came within about thirty miles of the last-named city, or rather of Jersey City just opposite to it -- it being now half-past five o'clock in the morning -- the servant in charge of the Pullman cars aroused the passengers in them, informing them that they were reaching the end of their journey. Mrs. Pollard got up, and having with no unreasonable delay, as it seemed, dressed herself and her child, began to arrange the child's hair, brushing and plaiting it. She was standing in the section which her traveling party had occupied, with her back to the seat in which she had been sitting, and so looking towards the rear of the cars, the child standing before her. During this operation of arranging the child's hair, and when within about one hundred yards of the depot at Jersey City, the whole train was switched off upon a siding. The four passenger cars and the baggage car were detached or uncoupled from the fruit and freight cars, were attached by the drill master to his engine, taken back over the same road beyond the switch, which was then adjusted to allow the cars to enter the passenger depot, and were then backed into the usual landing place for the passengers. In this operation and just as the train was about to stop -- the cars moving very slowly, so much so that some passengers at the moment were getting out of them on to the platform -- one car bumped against another with a certain degree of force, and Mrs. Pollard was

Page 89 U. S. 344

in some way thrown against the arm of the seat in which she had been sitting, striking, as testimony tended to prove must have been the case, the lower part of her spinal cord, a part of it which, as is known to medical men and surgeons, is very susceptible to anything like a blow, and which -- especially in case of women -- it is dangerous to fall upon. Mrs. Pollard was rendered quite unconscious by the blow, and the train being now completely stopped, she was carried by four men into a hotel near the station, where medical aid was soon obtained. Having been finally conveyed to her home in Chicago, it was soon found that the whole region about the lower part of the lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum was much injured, and that partial paralysis of the lower limbs was supervening. This went on, and power of locomotion, of course, was ultimately much impaired. Mrs. Pollard accordingly brought suit -- the suit below -- against the New Jersey Railroad Company, on whose road the accident occurred.

On the trial, the conductor of the car testified that Mrs. Pollard "told the doctor at Jersey City that she had a weak back," and the porter of the car testified that at the same place he

"heard her tell one of her sisters who had been traveling with her that she was sorry for the accident, because she was on her way for health; that her back had never been strong."

These statements, however, were denied by Mrs. Pollard and the sister.

There was testimony offered by the railroad company which tended to show that on all their cars they used the best sort of "buffers" to deaden the concussions which are unavoidably incident to stopping a train of cars; that the bumping in this case was not greater than what is usual in coming to a stand in the station house; and that by some persons it had not been even observed.

On the other hand, testimony was given to show that the company did not use the buffers known as Miller's, which the plaintiff alleged was the best sort to deaden the concussion, and testimony tending to show also that in the present case the jar had been unusual and violent.

Page 89 U. S. 345

One of the witnesses by whom the plaintiff's case was sought to be made out was herself. She had been examined de bene esse in Chicago, and her evidence, thus given, was read on the trial of the case at Trenton, New Jersey, she being at the time in Chicago, Illinois, and unable to travel.

This deposition was offered and received in pursuance of section 858 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, which enact as follows:

"In the courts of the United States, no witness shall be excluded in . . . any civil action because he is a party to or interested in the issue tried."

The same section, after excepting the cases of actions by or against executors, administrators, or guardians, continues:

"In all other respects, the laws of the state in which the court is held shall be the rules of decision as to the competency of witnesses in the courts of the United States in trials at common law, and in equity and admiralty."

The reading of the deposition was opposed by the defendants on the ground that it was not lawful, either by the acts of Congress or by the acts of the legislature of New Jersey, to use in evidence the deposition of a party, and because, as the defendants insisted, the testimony of the plaintiff, she being a party to the cause, could only be taken in the presence of the court and jury.

On its admission by the court, an exception was accordingly sealed.

The plaintiff having rested her case the defendant moved for a nonsuit on the ground that there was such contributory negligence on the part of Mrs. Pollard, as shown by her standing in the car, her position and occupation at the time of the accident, as would prevent a recovery, and that there was no such negligence shown on the part of the defendant as would warrant the case to be submitted to a jury. The court refused a nonsuit.

This refusal was the subject of another exception.

The evidence being concluded, the plaintiff's counsel requested the court to charge:

Page 89 U. S. 346

"That while the plaintiff was bound to satisfy the jury that the injury was caused by the negligence of the defendants if from the evidence the jury were satisfied that the injury was occasioned while Mrs. Pollard was a passenger on defendants' road and that she was in the exercise of ordinary care, namely, that degree of care which may be reasonably expected from a person in her situation, this would be prima facie or presumptive evidence of the defendants' liability, and that the plaintiff would not be required to show by what particular acts of misconduct or negligence on the part of the defendants the injury was occasioned."

The court charged that the law, as decided by this Court in Stokes v. Saltonstall, reported in 13th Pet. [Footnote 2] was in accordance with what the request thus made assumed it to be, but told the jury also to be careful not to consider any presumption against the defendant until they were satisfied by affirmative proof on the part of the plaintiff that Mrs. Pollard was in the exercise of reasonable care and caution when the injury was sustained.

The defendants' counsel asked the court to charge:

"1st. That the facts of the case were not of that character which would warrant on the part of the jury an inference that the defendants were guilty of a want of care and skill, and that the jury must look to affirmative proof of want of care and skill in coming to a verdict."

"2d. That the facts were not such as to warrant the conclusion that there was a want of care on the part of the defendants."

The court declined to give either one of these instructions, assigning as the ground of refusal that in the present case, the facts were not clear and uncontradicted and that it was only when they were that the court could direct the jury as to the inferences which the law drew from them.

The same counsel further asked the court to charge:

"3d. If, under all the facts of this case, the jury are unable to find how or in what manner the injury was caused, then that

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there would not be sufficient proof of negligence or want of skill on the part of the defendants as to enable the plaintiff to recover."

The court, in reply to this request, charged as follows:

"If this prayer means that the jury has no right, from the facts and circumstances proved, to infer negligence or want of skill and care on the part of the defendants, unless they are able to find how and in what manner the injury was caused, it is not a proper request in the present case, and I decline to charge the jury in accordance with it. There is no controversy but that the injury was the result of the fall of the plaintiff against the arm of the seat in the car, and the charge already given covers the extent of the responsibility of the defendants, and under what circumstances the law holds them liable in damages."

The same counsel further asked the court to charge:

"If the jury find from the facts of the case that both parties were negligent, there can be no recovery."

The court, in reply to this request, charged as follows:

"This prayer is correct, with this qualification, provided that the jury are of the opinion that the negligence of the plaintiff was of such a character as to contribute to the injury, and that such injury would not have resulted if she had not been guilty of negligence."

The jury having given a verdict in the sum of $8,000 for the plaintiff, and judgment being entered accordingly, the case was brought here on the refusal to nonsuit, on the admission of Mrs. Pollard's deposition, on the charge as given, and on the refusals to charge as requested.

Page 89 U. S. 350

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court.

It is unnecessary to decide in this case whether the Act of June 1, 1872, by which the practice, pleadings, forms, and modes of proceedings &c., in the Circuit and district courts of the United States are made to conform as near as may be to the practice, pleadings, forms, and modes of proceedings in the courts of the states gives to the circuit courts the power to order a nonsuit against the will of the plaintiff in states where that power exists in the state courts, because, upon an examination of the record, we are all of the opinion that the evidence submitted by the plaintiff was sufficient to justify the court in leaving the case to the jury.

It is conceded that the part of the charge to the jury excepted to is fully sustained by the decision of this Court in Stokes v. Saltonstall. We see no necessity for reconsidering that case.

There was no error in the refusal of the court to charge the jury as requested by the defendants. Each request involved the determination of a question of fact by the court, where there was, to say the least, a conflict of evidence.

We have decided at the present term, in Texas v. Chiles, [Footnote 3] that in the courts of the United States, parties to a suit are by acts of Congress put upon a footing of equality with other witnesses and are "admissible to testify for themselves and compellable to testify for the others."

This disposes of all the errors assigned in this case.

Judgment affirmed.

N.B. No punitive damages were given.

[Footnote 1]

Statutes of the United States § 914.

[Footnote 2]

Page 38 U. S. 181.

[Footnote 3]

88 U. S. 21 Wall. 488.

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