232 US 248 North Carolina Railroad Company v. James a Zachary

232 U.S. 248

34 S.Ct. 305

58 L.Ed. 591

JAMES A. ZACHARY, Administrator of Herbert H. Burgess.

No. 144.

Argued December 17 and 18, 1913.

Decided February 2, 1914.

Mr. John K. Graves for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 249-252 intentionally omitted]

Messrs. Thomas H. Calvert, John A. Barringer, and George S. Bradshaw for defendant in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 252-254 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Justice Pitney delivered the opinion of the court:


This action was brought in the superior court of Guilford county, North Carolina, to recover damages for the negligent killing of Burgess a locomotive fireman in the employ of the Southern Railway Company, lessee of the defendant, which occurred at Selma, North Carolina, on April 29, 1909, Under the local law, as laid down in Logan v. North Carolina R. Co. 116 N. C. 940, 21 S. E. 959, the lessor is responsible for all acts of negligence of its lessee occurring in the conduct of business upon the lessor's road; and this upon the ground that a railroad corporation cannot evade its public duty and responsibility by leasing its road to another corporation, in the absence of a statute expressly exempting it. The responsibility is held to extend to employees of the lessee, injured through the negligence of the latter.


The complaint set forth in substance that plaintiff's intestate, being in the employ of defendant's lessee, and engaged at the Selma switchyards in the discharge of his duties as fireman upon engine No. 862, about 8 o'clock, P. M., on the date mentioned, after inspecting, ciling, firing, and preparing the engine for starting on a trip from Selma to Spencer, North Carolina, attempted to cross certain tracks that intervened between the engine and his boarding house, which was located a short distance away; that another engine, No. 716, was standing upon a side track in such position as to shut off intestate's view of the main track; that No. 716 had its blower on, and was making a noise so loud that intestate could not hear a third engine,—No. 1551, the shifting engine used in the yards,—which at this time was running backward at a reckless and dangerous rate of speed, without headlight and without an adequate and competent crew; and that as intestate stepped from the track in the rear of engine No. 716, and was about to step upon the main line in the attempt to cross it, he was struck and killed by the shifting engine. Defendant's answer, besides denying the allegations of negligence, set up as a special defense that at the time plaintiff's intestate was killed, he was engaged in interstate commerce as an employee upon a train of defendant's lessee which was moving from Selma, North Carolina, to Spencer, in the same state, and carrying cars loaded with freight from the state of Virginia to the state of North Carolina and other states; that the liability of the defendant to him or to the plaintiff as his representative was fixed and regulated by the Federal employers' liability act of April 22, 1908 [35 Stat. at L. 65, chap. 149, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, p. 1322], and that under that act the plaintiff was not entitled to recover.


Upon the trial, at the close of plaintiff's evidence, which tended generally to support the averments of the complaint, defendant moved for a nonsuit, and among other grounds assigned the following:—that from the uncontradicted evidence it appeared that at the time of the occurrence in question defendant, through its lessee, was a common carrier by railroad, engaged in interstate commerce, and plaintiff's intestate was at that time a person employed by such carrier in such commerce; that the act of Congress already referred to exclusively regulated the liability of defendant to plaintiff's intestate, and that upon all the evidence plaintiff had failed to make out a case of liability under that act. The court, in denying the motion, held that the action was brought under the statute of North Carolina, that the Federal act had no application, and that the cause was triable under the statutes of the state. To this ruling, defendant excepted. At the close of the case, defendant again undertook to invoke the protection of the Federal act by requested instructions to the jury, which were refused and exceptions allowed.


There was a verdict for plaintiff and judgment thereon, followed by an appeal to the supreme court of the state. That court overruled the contention of defendant that the Federal employers' liability act of April 22, 1908, applied, and held that the action was properly tried under the state law. The result was an affirmance (156 N. C. 496, 72 S. E. 858), and the case comes here under § 709, Rev. Stat. U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 575 (Judicial Code, § 237 [36 Stat. at L. 1156, chap. 231, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, p. 227]).


In order to bring the case within the terms of the Federal act (35 Stat. at L. 65, chap. 149, U. S. Comp. Stat. Supp. 1911, p. 1322, printed in full in 223 U. S. p. 6, 56 L. ed. 329, 38 L.R.A.(N.S.) 44, 32 Sup. Ct. Rep. 169, 1 N. C. C. A.875), defendant must have been, at the time of the occurrence in question, engaged as a common carrier in interstate commerce, and plaintiff's intestate must have been employed by said carrier in such commerce. If these facts appeared, the Federal act governed, to the exclusion of the statutes of the state. Second Employers' Liability Cases (Mondou v. New York, N. H. & H. R. Co.) 223 U. S. 1, 55, 56 L. ed. 327, 348, 38 L.R.A. (N.S.) 44, 32 Sup. Ct. Rep. 169, 1 N. C. C. A. 875; St. Louis, S. F. & T. R. Co. v. Seale, 229 U. S. 156, 158, 57 L. ed. 1129, 1133, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 651.


It is not disputed that if the provisions of the Federal act had been applied, the result of the action might have been different. To mention only one matter: there was neither averment in the pleadings nor evidence at the trial that deceased left a widow, child, parent, or dependent next of kin. Persons thus related to deceased are the respective beneficiaries of the action prescribed by the act of Congress, and the damages are to be based upon the pecuniary loss sustained by the beneficiary. Michigan C. R. Co. v. Vreeland, 227 U. S. 59, 68, 57 L. ed. 417, 420, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 192; Gulf, C. & S. F. R. Co. v. McGinnis, 228 U. S. 173, 57 L. ed. 785, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 426. The state law (Revisal 1908, § 2646) seems not to recognize this limitation upon the measure of recovery; certainly the damages in the present case were assessed without regard to it.


In support of the judgment, it is earnestly argued that the question whether deceased was employed in interstate commerce was not properly raised in the trial court, in accordance with the pertinent provisions of the local Code of Civil Procedure. But this is a question of state practice; and since it appears that defendant expressly claimed immunity by reason of the act of Congress, and the highest court of the state either decided or assumed that the record sufficiently presented a question of Federal right, and decided against the party asserting that right, the decisions of this court render it clear that it is our duty to pass upon the merits of the Federal question. Home for Incurables v. New York, 187 U. S. 155, 157, 47 L. ed. 117, 118, 63 L.R.A. 329, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 84; San Jos e Land & Water Co. v. San Jos e Ranch Co. 189 U. S. 177, 179, 47 L. ed. 765, 766, 23 Sup. Ct. Rep. 487; Montana ex rel. Haire v. Rice, 204 U. S. 291, 299, 51 L. ed. 490, 494, 27 Sup. Ct. Rep. 281; Chambers v. Baltimore & O. R. Co. 207 U. S. 142, 148, 52 L. ed. 143, 146, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 34; Miedreich v. Lauenstein, No. 20, 232 U. S. 236, 58 L. ed. ——, 34 Sup. Ct. Rep. 309


The court based its decision that the Federal act did not apply, in part upon the ground that the North Carolina Railroad is not an interstate railroad,—its tracks and property lying wholly within the state,—and that the corporation itself is not, although its lessee is, engaged in interstate commerce; the lessor's activities being confined to receiving annual rents and distributing them among its stockholders. The responsibility of the lessor for all acts of negligence of the lessee occurring in the conduct of business on the lessor's road, as established by the same court in Logan v. North Carolina R. Co. 116 N. C. 941, 21 S. E. 959, was recognized—indeed, reasserted. 'But,' it was said, 'that is because a railroad corporation cannot escape its responsibility by leasing its road. It is still liable for its lessee's acts of commission and omission, whether they occur in interstate or intrastate commerce, although the lessor is not actually engaged in either.' [156 N. C. 500, 72 S. E. 858.]


It is plain enough, however, that the effect of the rule thus laid down, especially in view of the grounds upon which it is based, is, that although a railroad lease as between the parties may have the force and effect of an ordinary lease, yet with respect to the railroad operations conducted under it, and everything that relates to the performance of the public duties assumed by the lessor under its charter, such a lease—certainly so far as concerns the rights of third parties, including employees as well as patrons—constitutes the lessee the lessor's substitute or agent, so that for whatever the lessee does or fails to do, whether in interstate or in intrastate commerce, the lessor is responsible. This being the legal situation under the local law, it seems to us that it must and does result, in the the case before us, that the lessor is a 'common carrier by railroad, engaging in commerce between the states,' and that the deceased was 'employed by such carrier in such commerce,' within the meaning of the Federal act; provided, of course, he was employed by the lessee in such commerce at the time he was killed.


It was, however, further held by the supreme court of North Carolina that deceased, at the time he was killed, was not in fact employed by the Southern Railway, the lessee, in interstate commerce. There are several grounds upon which this decision was based, or upon which it is said to be supportable; and these will be separately noticed. Of course, if, upon the evidence, any essential matter of fact was in doubt, it should have been submitted to the jury under proper instructions. The rulings of the trial court deprived plaintiff in error of the opportunity to go to the jury upon the question. But it is now insisted that there was no evidence tending to show that deceased was engaged in interstate commerce. This renders it incumbent upon us to analyze the evidence to the extent necessary to give to plaintiff in error the benefit of its asserted Federal right. Southern P. Co. v. Schuyler, 227 U. S. 601, 611, 57 L. ed. 662, 669, 43 L.R.A.(N.S.) 901, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 277, and cases cited.


The evidence tended to show that train No. 72 of the Southern Railway had come into Selma, North Carolina, from Pinners Point, Virginia and other places, and that a shifting crew was 'working' this train so as to take two cars from it and put them into a train that was to include these and other cars to be hauled from Selma to Spencer, North Carolina by engine No. 862, and that deceased was employed on this engine as fireman for the trip that was about to begin, and had already prepared his engine for the purpose. It is contended that the evidence failed to show that the two cars thus taken from train No. 72 had come in from Virginia, rather than from the 'other places,' which it is said might be intermediate North Carolina points. We find, however, evidence that the train which was to be hauled from Selma to Spencer by engine No. 862 was being made up in part from cars that had come in from Pinners Point; and it was at least a reasonable inference that the two cars referred to were being put into the Spencer train in order to be carried forward as a part of a through movement of interstate commerce.


There seems to be no clear evidence as to the contents of these cars, and it is argued that, in the absence of evidence, it is as reasonable to infer that they were empty as that they were loaded; and that it was incumbent upon defendant to show that they contained interstate freight. We hardly deem it so probable that empty freight cars would be hauled from the Virginia point to Spencer. But were it so, the hauling of empty cars from one state to another is, in our opinion, interstate commerce within the meaning of the act. Such is the view that has obtained with respect to empty cars in actions based upon the safety appliance act of March 2, 1893 (27 Stat. at L. 531, chap. 196, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3174). Johnson v. Southern P. Co. 196 U. S. 1, 21, 49 L. ed. 363, 371, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 158, 17 Am. Neg. Rep. 412; Voelker v. Chicago, M. & St. P. R. Co. 116 Fed. 867, 873. And the like reason applies, as we think, to actions founded upon the employers' liability act, which, indeed, is in pari materia with the other


It is argued that because, so far as appears, deceased had not previously participated in any movement of interstate freight, and the through cars had not as yet been attached to his engine, his employment in interstate commerce was still in futuro. It seems to us, however, that his acts in inspecting, oiling, firing, and preparing his engine for the trip to Selma were acts performed as a part of interstate commerce and the circumstance that the interstate freight cars had not as yet been coupled up is legally insignificant. See Pedersen v. Delaware, L. & W. R. Co. 229 U. S. 146, 151, 57 L. ed. 1125, 1127, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 648; St. Louis, S. F. & T. R. Co. v. Seale, 229 U. S. 156, 161, 57 L. ed. 1129, 1134, 33 Sup. Ct. Rep. 651.


Again, it is said that because deceased had left his engine and was going to his boarding house, he was engaged upon a personal errand, and not upon the carrier's business. Assuming (what is not clear) that the evidence fairly tended to indicate the boarding house as his destination, it nevertheless also appears that deceased was shortly to depart upon his run, having just prepared his engine for the purpose, and that he had not gone beyond the limits of the railroad yard when he was struck. There is nothing to indicate that this brief visit to the boarding house was at all out of the ordinary, or was inconsistent with his duty to his employer. It seems to us clear that the man was still 'on duty,' and employed in commerce, notwithstanding his temporary absence from the locomotive engine. See Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. United States, 231 U. S. 112, 119, 58 L. ed. ——, 34 Sup. Ct. Rep. 26.


We conclude that, with respect to the facts necessary to bring the case within the Federal act, there was evidence that at least was sufficient to go to the jury. It is doubtful whether there was substantial contradiction respecting any of these facts; but this we need not consider.


From what has been said, it follows that the state courts erred in holding that the Federal act had no application. As the case stands, we are not called upon to determine the validity of the several contentions that were raised by defendant at the trial on the strength of that act, nor to pass upon the mode in which they were raised. Upon these matters, therefore, we express no opinion.


Judgment reversed, and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.