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January 3, 1921



White, McKenna, Holmes, Day, Van Devanter, Pitney, McReynolds, Brandeis, Clarke

Author: Holmes

[ 254 U.S. Page 415]

 MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is an action brought in a state court against the petitioner for causing the death of Linder, the plaintiff's

[ 254 U.S. Page 416]

     intestate. At the trial the petitioner requested instructions that Linder assumed the risk of injury from the cause complained of and that a verdict should be rendered for the defendant. These were refused, the defendant saving its rights upon the record, and the plaintiff got a verdict and judgment. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the judgment; the Supreme Court denied a writ of error, and thereupon a writ of certiorari was allowed by this Court upon the ground that an immunity set up under the Federal Employers' Liability Act was involved.

The facts so far as made definite by the evidence are not in dispute. Linder was employed by the defendant as an engineer upon a train running from El Paso, Texas, to Deming, New Mexico. At Carney, in New Mexico, he was found sitting on his engineer's seat, unconscious, with his right arm and pretty nearly half of his body outside of the cab, leaning with the right side and arm over the arm rest of the engine. There was a cut about an inch over the right ear. He had been struck by the end of a mail crane, or a mail sack that had been placed on it to be picked up by a mail train following Linder's which was an extra carrying soldiers. In order to have uniformity the Post Office Department fixes the distance of the cranes from the equipment, and the length of the hooks, so that, in the language of a witness for the plaintiff, "the same hook that will take a sack off a crane in Arizona or New Mexico will take it as it goes through western Kansas." The evidence was all to the effect that this crane stood at the same distance as all the others along the road. The end of the crane when elevated was not nearer to the train than fourteen inches, but might have been found to be as near as that, and therefore near enough to be capable of hitting a person leaning out of the window, as indeed was shown by the event.

Linder had been upon this route for some years, had

[ 254 U.S. Page 417]

     passed over it many times and must be presumed to have known of the crane. It was visible from the engineer's seat half a mile ahead, through a front window. About a mile before reaching Carney Linder had noticed that the main driving pin on the engine was getting hot, had crept out upon the running board to see about it, and had returned. It may be supposed that at the time of the accident he was leaning out of the side window to look at it again and was acting in the course of his duty. The position in which his body was first seen and the place of the wound indicate that he was more than fourteen inches out from the engine's side.

In this case the question is not whether a reasonable insurance against such misfortunes should not be thrown upon the travelling public through the railroads, or whether it always is possible for a railroad employee to exercise what would be called due care for his own safety and to do what he is hired to do. The question is whether the railroad is liable under the statute according to the principles of the common law regarding tort. The first element in it is the standard of conduct to be laid down for the road. The standard concerns a permanent condition not only at this place, but at many places along the road and presumably at innumerable others on all the large railroads of the United States. There are no special circumstances to qualify this part of the question -- which is whether or not it is consistent with the duty of a railroad to its employees to erect railroad cranes of which the end of the arm when in use is fourteen inches from the side of the train. The railroad is required and presumed to know its duty in the matter and it would seem that the Court ought to be equally well informed. It cannot be that the theory of the law requires it to be left to the uncertain judgment of a jury in every case. See Southern Pacific Co. v. Pool, 160 U.S. 438, 440.

It is impracticable to require railroads ...

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