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decided: February 16, 1942.



Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Byrnes, Jackson

Author: Roberts

[ 315 U.S. Page 284]

 MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action was brought by the administratrix of Stewart's estate to recover for his death in consequence of a violation of the Safety Appliance Act.*fn1 The crew of which the interstate was a member was engaged in coupling freight cars. Stewart was on the engineer's side of the train. He gave a back-up signal with which the engineer complied and then a stop signal which was obeyed. The engineer saw him go between the ends of the last car of the train and the car that was to be coupled to it. While the train was stationary, this car drifted into collision with the end car of the train. Persons who responded to Stewart's cries found him with his arm crushed between the couplers, both of which were closed. His arm was amputated and a few days later he died.

The administratrix, pursuant to leave of a state probate court, executed a release in consideration of $5,000 paid her. Subsequently she alleged in that court that she had been fraudulently induced to settle the case, and sought authority to rescind the release. The court decided against her after full hearing.

In the present action the plaintiff offered testimony as to the circumstances of the accident. The respondent relied upon the release; offered evidence to prove death was due to causes other than the injury, but introduced no testimony as to what occurred at the time of Stewart's

[ 315 U.S. Page 285]

     injury, or as to the condition of the couplers. The trial court ruled that the decision of the probate court on the issue of fraud in procuring the release was not res judicata, and submitted to the jury all issues, including that of the validity of the release. A verdict was rendered for petitioner for $17,500. It does not appear whether this sum was intended to be in addition to the $5,000 theretofore received by the administratrix. The judgment entered was for the amount of the verdict without credit for that sum.

The respondent appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals. The petitioner was substituted for the administratrix, who had died. Judgment non obstante veredicto was denied but the judgment was reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial, for errors in the charge to the jury.*fn2 On motion of both parties a rehearing was accorded. The court then held there was no substantial evidence to sustain the verdict, and reversed and remanded with directions to enter a judgment for the respondent.*fn3 This Court granted certiorari.

The record contains no direct evidence as to any defect in the coupler mechanisms of the cars involved in the accident. Each was equipped with an automatic coupler having a "pin lifter," whereby the pin in the coupler can be lifted so as to allow the jaw of the coupler to swing into the open position. The purpose of the device is to permit a switchman to open the coupler into the position where it will engage with the coupler of the other car upon impact without the operator going between the ends of the cars. The engineer, a witness for petitioner, testified that he did not see the intestate attempt to use the pin lifter, but did see him go between the cars. The foreman of the crew, also a witness for the petitioner, testified

[ 315 U.S. Page 286]

     that when he arrived the jaws of both couplers were closed and decedent's arm had been crushed between them. He testified that after the accident he coupled the cars in question by going between the cars and opening the jaw of the coupler by hand. He stated that he tried to use the pin lifter on the car at the end of the train, which would be the one available on the side of the train on which he was working. He also testified that if the coupler was in working order it could be set by the use of the pin lifter. He was not asked, and did not state, what effort he made to operate the pin lifter. Neither party asked him any further questions as to the working condition of the pin lifter or coupler.

The petitioner insists that, in the absence of evidence on behalf of the respondent, as to the condition of the coupler, the jury were entitled to infer that the pin lifter was not in working order, otherwise the foreman, an experienced man, would not have gone between the cars and opened the coupler jaw by hand. The court below held the jury was not entitled to draw this inference in the absence ...

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