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RAILROAD COMPANY v. LOCKWOOD.

October 1, 1873

RAILROAD COMPANY
v.
LOCKWOOD.



ERROR or the Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York; the case being thus: Lockwood, a drover, was injured whilst travelling on a stock train of the New York Central Railroad Company, proceeding from Buffalo to Albany, and brought this suit to recover damages for the injury. He had cattle in the train, and had been required, at Buffalo, to sign an agreement to attend to the loading, transporting, and unloading of them, and to take all risk of injury to them and of personal injury to himself, or to whomsoever went with the cattle; and he received what is called a drover's pass; that is to say, a pass certifying that he had shipped sufficient stock to pass free to Albany, but declaring that the acceptance of the pass was to be considered a waiver of all claims for damages or injuries received on the train. The agreement stated its consideration to be the carrying of the plaintiff's cattle at less than tariff rates. It was shown on the trial, that these rates were about three times the ordinary rates charged, and that no drover had cattle carried on those terms; but that all signed similar agreements to that which was signed by the plaintiff, and received similar passes. Evidence was given on the trial tending to show that the injury complained of was sustained in consequence of negligence on the part of the defendants or their servants, but they insisted that they were exempted by the terms of the contract from responsibility for all accidents, including those occurring from negligence, at least the ordinary negligence of their servants; and requested the judge so to charge. This he refused, and charged that if the jury were satisfied that the injury occurred without any negligence on the part of the plaintiff, and that the negligence of the defendants caused the injury, they must find for the plaintiff, which they did. Judgment being entered accordingly, the railroad company took this writ of error. It is unnecessary to notice some subordinate points made, as this court was of opinion that all the questions of fact were fairly left to the jury, and that the whole controversy depended on the main question of law stated. The case was elaborately argued by Mr. T. R. Strong, for the company, plaintiff in error, and by Messrs. Truman Smith and Cephas Brainerd, contra, early in the last term, with a full citation of authorities; the counsel for the plaintiff in error relying especially on the New York cases of Welles v. The New York Central Railroad Company,*fn1 Perkins v. Same,*fn2 Smith v. Same,*fn3 Bissell v. Same,*fn4 Poucher v. Same,*fn5 by which he argued that the case was to be determined; those being decisions of the highest court of the State of New York, within whose jurisdiction the contract was made and to be executed, and where the alleged cause of action occurred. Being held under advisement till this term––

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Bradley delivered the opinion of the court.

It may be assumed in limine, that the case was one of carriage for hire; for though the pass certifies that the plaintiff was entitled to pass free, yet his passage was one of the mutual terms of the arrangement for carrying his cattle. The question is, therefore, distinctly raised, whether a railroad company carrying passengers for hire, can lawfully stipulate not to be answerable for their own or their servants' negligence in reference to such carriage.

As the duties and responsibilities of public carriers were prescribed by public policy, it has been seriously doubted whether the courts did wisely in allowing that policy to be departed from without legislative interference, by which needed modifications could have been introduced into the law. But the great hardship on the carrier in certain special cases, where goods of great value or subject to extra risk were delivered to him without notice of their character, and where losses happened by sheer accident without any possibility of fraud or collusion on his part, such as by collisions at sea, accidental fire, &c., led to a relaxation of the rule to the extent of authorizing certain exemptions from liability in such cases to be provided for, either by public notice brought home to the owners of the goods, or by inserting exemptions from liability in the bill of lading, or other contract of carriage. A modification of the strict rule of responsibility, exempting the carrier from liability for accidental losses, where it can be safely done, enables the carrying interest to reduce its rates of compensation; thus proportionally relieving the transportation of produce and merchandise from some of the burden with which it is loaded.

The question is, whether such modification of responsibility by notice or special contract may not be carried beyond legitimate bounds, and introduce evils against which it was the direct policy of the law to guard; whether, for example, a modification which gives license and immunity to negligence and carelessness on the part of a public carrier or his servants, is not so evidently repugnant to that policy as to be altogether null and void; or, at least null and void under certain circumstances.

In the case of sea-going vessels, Congress has, by the act of 1851, relieved ship-owners from all responsibility for loss by fire unless caused by their own design or neglect; and from responsibility for loss of money and other valuables named, unless notified of their character and value; and has limited their liability to the value of ship and freight, where losses happen by the embezzlement or other act of the master, crew, or passengers; or by collision, or any cause occurring without their privity or knowledge; but the master and crew themselves are held responsible to the parties injured by their negligence or misconduct. Similar enactments have been made by State legislatures. This seems to be the only important modification of previously existing law on the subject, which in this country has been effected by legislative interference. And by this, it is seen, that though intended for the relief of the ship-owner, it still leaves him liable to the extent of his ship and freight for the negligence and misconduct of his employees, and liable without limit for his own negligence.

It is true that the first section of the above act relating to loss by fire has a proviso, that nothing in the act contained shall prevent the parties from making such contract as they please, extending or limiting the liability of ship-owners. This proviso, however, neither enacts nor affirms anything. It simply expresses the intent of Congress to leave the right of contracting as it stood before the act.

The courts of New York, where this case arose, for a long time resisted the attempts of common carriers to limit their common-law liability, except for the purpose of procuring a disclosure of the character and value of articles liable to extra hazard and risk. This, they were allowed to enforce by means of a notice of non-liability, if the disclosure was not made. But such announcements as 'all baggage at the risk of the owner,' and such exceptions in bills of lading as 'this company will not be responsible for injuries by fire, nor for goods lost, stolen, or damaged,' were held to be unavailing and void, as being against the policy of the law.*fn6

But since the decision in the case of The New Jersey Steam Navigation Company v. Merchants' Bank,*fn7 by this court, in January Term, 1848, it has been uniformly held, as well in the courts of New York as in the Federal courts, that a common carrier may, by special contract, limit his common-law liability; although considerable diversity of opinion has existed as to the extent to which such limitation is admissible.

The case of The New Jersey Steam Navigation Company v. Merchants' Bank, above adverted to, grew out of the burning of the steamer Lexington. Certain money belonging to the bank had been intrusted to Harnden's Express, to be carried to Boston, and was on board the steamer when she was destroyed. By agreement between the steamboat company and Harnden, the crate of the latter and its contents were to be at his sole risk. The court held this agreement valid, so far as to exonerate the steamboat company from the responsibility imposed by law; but not to excuse them for misconduct or negligence, which the court said it would not presume that the parties intended to include, although the terms of the contract were broad enough for that purpose; and that inasmuch as the company had undertaken to carry the goods from one place to another, they were deemed to have incurred the same degree of responsibility as that which attaches to a private person engaged casually in the like occupation, and were, therefore, bound to use ordinary care in the custody of the goods, and in their delivery, and to provide proper vehicles and means of conveyance for their transportation; and as the court was of opinion that the steamboat company had been guilty of negligence in these particulars, as well as in the management of the steamer during the fire, they held them responsible for the loss.

As this has been regarded as a leading case, we may pause for a moment to observe that the case before us seems almost precisely within the category of that decision. In that case, as in this, the contract was general, exempting the carrier from every risk and imposing it all upon the party; but the court would not presume that the parties intended to include the negligence of the carrier or his agents in that exception.

It is strenuously insisted, however, that as negligence is the only ground of liability in the carriage of passengers, and as the contract is absolute in its terms, it must be construed to embrace negligence as well as accident, the former in reference to passengers, and both in reference to the cattle carried in the train. As this argument seems plausible, and the exclusion of a liability embraced in the terms of exemption on the ground that it could not have been in the mind of the parties is somewhat arbitrary, we will proceed to examine the question before propounded, namely, whether common carriers may excuse themselves from liability for negligence. In doing so we shall first briefly review the course of decisions in New York, on which great stress has been laid, and which are claimed to be decisive of the question. Whilst we cannot concede this, it is, nevertheless, due to the courts of that State to examine carefully the grounds of their decision and to give them the weight which they justly deserve. We think it will be found, however, that the weight of opinion, even in New York, is not altogether on the side that favors the right of the carrier to stipulate for exemption from the consequences of his own or his servants' negligence.

The first recorded case that arose in New York after the before-mentioned decision in this court, involving the right of a carrier to limit his liability, was that of Dorr v. The New Jersey Steam Navigation Company, decided in 1850.*fn8 This case also arose out of the burning of the Lexington, under a bill of lading which excepted from the company's risk 'danger of fire, water, breakage, leakage, and other accidents.' Judge Campbell, delivering the opinion of the court, says: 'A common carrier has in truth two distinct liabilities,–the one for losses by accident or mistake, where he is liable as an insurer; the other for losses by default or negligence, where he is answerable as an ordinary bailee. It would certainly seem reasonable that he might, by express special contract, restrict his liability as insurer; that he might protect himself against misfortune, even though public policy should require that he should not be permitted to stipulate for impunity where the loss occurs from his own default or neglect of duty. Such we understand to be the doctrine laid down in the case of The New Jersey Steam Navigation Company v. The Merchants' Bank, in 6th Howard, and such we consider to be the law in the present case.' And in Stoddard v. Long Island Railroad Company,*fn9 another express case, in which it was stipulated that the express company should be alone responsible for all losses, Judge Duer, for the court, says: 'Conforming our decision to that of the Supreme Court of the United States, we must, therefore, hold: 1st. That the liability of the defendants as common carriers was restricted by the terms of the special agreement between them and Adams & Co., and that this restriction was valid in law. 2d. That by the just interpretation of this agreement the defendants were not to be exonerated from all losses, but remained liable for such as might result from the wrongful acts, or the want of due care and diligence of themselves or their agents and servants. 3d. That the plaintiffs, claiming through Adams & Co., are bound by the special agreement.' The same view was taken in subsequent cases,*fn10 all of which show that no idea was then entertained of sanctioning exemptions of liability for negligence.
It was not till 1858, in the case of Welles v. New York Central Railroad Company,*fn11 that the Supreme Court was brought to assent to the proposition that a common carrier may stipulate against responsibility for the negligence of his servants. That was the case of a gratuitous passenger travelling on a free ticket, which exempted the company from liability. In 1862 the Court of Appeals by a majority affirmed this judgment,*fn12 and in answer to the suggestion that public policy required that railroad companies should not be exonerated from the duty of carefulness in performing their important and hazardous duties, the court held that the case of free passengers could not seriously affect the incentives to carefulness, because there were very few such, compared with the great mass of the travelling public. Perkins v. The New York Central Railroad Company,*fn13 was also the case of a free passenger, with a similar ticket, and the court held that the indorsement exempted the company from all kinds of negligence of its agents, gross as well as ordinary; that there is, in truth, no practical distinction in the degrees of negligence.
The next cases of importance that arose in the New York courts were those of drovers' passes, in which the passenger took all responsibility of injury to himself and stock. The first was that of Smith v. New York Central Railroad Company,*fn14 decided in March, 1859. The contract was precisely the same as that in the present case. The damage arose from a flattened wheel in the car, which caused it to jump the track. The Supreme Court, by Hogeboom, J., held that the railroad company was liable for any injury happening to the passenger, not only by the gross negligence of the company's servants, but by ordinary negligence on their part. 'For my part,' says the judge, 'I think not only gross negligence is not protected by the terms of the contract, but what is termed ordinary negligence, or the withholding of ordinary care, is not so protected. I think, notwithstanding the contract, the carrier is responsible for what, independent of any peculiar responsibility attached to his calling or employment, would be regarded as fault or misconduct on his part.' The judge added that he thought the carrier might, by positive stipulation, relieve himself to a limited degree from the consequences of his own negligence or that of his servants. But, to accomplish that object, the contract must be clear and specific in its terms, and plainly covering such a case. Of course, this remark was extrajudicial. The judgment itself was affirmed by the Court of Appeals in 1862 by a vote of five judges to three.*fn15 Judge Wright strenuously contended that it is against public policy for a carrier of passengers, where human life is at stake, to stipulate for immunity for any want of care. 'Contracts in restraint of trade are void,' he says, 'because they interfere with the welfare and convenience of the State; yet the State has a deep interest in protecting the lives of its citizens.' He argued that it was a question affecting the public, and not alone the party who is carried. Judge Sutherland agreed in substance with Judge Wright. Two other judges held that if the party injured had been a gratuitous passenger the company would have been discharged, but in their view he was not a gratuitous passenger. One judge was for affirmance, on the ground that the negligence was that of the company itself. The remaining three judges held the contract valid to the utmost extent of exonerating the company, notwithstanding the grossest neglect on the part of its servants.

In that case, as in the one before us, the contract was general in its terms, and did not specify negligence of agents as a risk assumed by the passenger, though by its generality it included all risks.

The next case, Bissell v. The New York Central Railroad Company,*fn16 first decided in September, 1859, differed from the preceding in that the ticket expressly stipulated that the railroad company should not be liable under any circumstances, 'whether of negligence by their agents, or otherwise,' for injury to the person or stock of the passenger. The latter was killed by the express train running into the stock train, and the jury found that his death was caused by the gross negligence of the agents and servants of the defendants. The Supreme Court held that gross negligence (whether of servants or principals) cannot be excused by contract in reference to the carriage of passengers for hire, and that such a contract is against the policy of the law, and void. In December, 1862, this judgment was reversed by the Court of Appeals,*fn17 four judges against three; Judge Smith, who concurred in the judgment below, having in the meantime changed his views as to the materiality of the fact that the negligence stipulated against was that of the servants of the company, and not of the company itself. The majority now held that the ticket was a free ticket, as it purported to be, and, therefore, that the case was governed by Welles v. The Central Railroad Company; but whether so, or not, the contract was founded on a valid consideration, and the passenger was bound by it even to the assumption of the risk arising from the gross negligence of the company's servants. Elaborate opinions were read by Justice Selden in favor, and by Justice Denio against the conclusion reached by the court. The former considered that no rule of public policy forbids such contracts, because the public is amply protected by the right of every one to decline any special contract, on paying the regular fare prescribed by law, that is, the highest amount which the law allows the company to charge. In other words, unless a man chooses to pay the highest amount which the company by its charter is authorized to charge, he must submit to their terms, however onerous. Justice Denio, with much force of argument, combated this view, and insisted upon the impolicy and immorality of contracts stipulating immunity for negligence, either of servants or principals, where the lives and safety of passengers are concerned. The late case of Poucher v. New York Central Railroad Company*fn18 is in all essential respects a similar case to this, and a similar result was reached.

These are the authorities which we are asked to follow. Cases may also be found in some of the other State courts which, by dicta or decision either favor or follow, more or less closely, the decisions in New York. A reference to the principal of them is all that is necessary here.*fn19

A review of the cases decided by the courts of New York shows that though they have carried the power of the common carrier to make special contracts to the extent of enabling him to exonerate himself from the effects of even gross negligence, yet that this effect has never been given to a contract general in its terms. So that if we only felt bound by those precedents, we could, perhaps, find no authority for reversing the judgment in this case. But on a question of general commercial law, the Federal courts administering justice in New York have equal and co-ordinate jurisdiction with the courts of that State. And in deciding a case which involves a question of such importance to the whole country; a question on which the courts of New York have expressed such diverse views, and have so recently and with such slight preponderancy of judicial ...


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