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decided: December 19, 1949.



Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Jackson, Burton, Clark, Minton, McGrath; Douglas took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Clark

[ 338 U.S. Page 431]

 MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Safety Appliance Acts require railroad cars used in interstate commerce to be equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact.*fn1 This case brings before us for review another action for damages by a railroad employee under the Safety Appliance Acts and the Federal Employers' Liability Act.*fn2 The trial court instructed the jury that there could be no liability based on any "defect" in the "automatic coupling system," but submitted the case on issues of negligence. There was a verdict against the plaintiff upon which judgment for the railroad was entered. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 170 F.2d 719. We granted certiorari because of the confusion which has developed in the application of the two statutes. 336 U.S. 935. Our duty to review certain cases of this nature is settled. Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U.S. 53 (1949); Keeton v. Thompson, 326 U.S. 689 (1945); Ellis v. Union Pacific R. Co., 329 U.S. 649 (1947).

On February 2, 1946, the petitioner was injured while acting as "swing man" of a switching crew on the respondent railroad. The crew of five men were engaged at night in switching operations at and near the International Paper Company plant in Panama City, Florida.

[ 338 U.S. Page 432]

     The conductor of the crew had laid out a plan for coupling together a number of cars, some of which were on storage tracks and one on the main line. The ultimate objective was to switch some wood rack cars loaded with pulpwood into the wood yard of the paper concern. In the conductor's absence petitioner was in charge of the switching operations and attempted to carry out the instructions given him.

The engine, after coupling in front of it a box car followed by eight flat cars, was engaged in backing the train of cars onto the main line, in order to couple, at the end of the train, a Louisville & Nashville Railroad wood rack car loaded with pulpwood. The petitioner had previously set the brake and had opened both lips of the coupler on the L. & N. car preparatory to attaching the car to the train. He had given the footboard man the slow signal ahead for coupling, which had been passed on to the engineer. The engineer brought the train forward and hit the L. & N. car in the usual manner necessary for coupling, but instead of coupling to the train the L. & N. car started rolling down the tracks, which were, at this point, on a downgrade.

Petitioner saw that the L. & N. car had not coupled and ran after it for some fifty or sixty feet, climbed to the bulkhead where the brake wheel was located, and applied the hand brake to stop the car. He was able to bring the car to a stop only after it had left the main line and traveled around a curve for some six car lengths. Looking up, he saw the train moving toward him about twenty feet away at a speed which conflicting testimony places at a maximum of fifteen miles per hour to a minimum of two miles per hour. Petitioner grabbed the brake wheel to brace himself, but the train hit the L. & N. car so violently that it threw the petitioner about six feet down into its hold. This time the coupling was successful, and as the L. & N. car jerked from the impact some

[ 338 U.S. Page 433]

     of the pulpwood loaded in the car was pitched forward on the petitioner, causing the alleged injuries.

The engineer testified that he did not know whether the L. & N. car had safely coupled at the first impact. He contended that after this impact, he received the come-ahead signal from the petitioner, whereupon he moved the train forward at about six miles per hour. The testimony was in sharp conflict with reference to this signal, as well as to other details of the incident.

Defendant moved for a directed verdict as to the failure to couple on the ground that while the coupler failed to couple on the initial impact, "it worked previously and worked subsequently, and the proof shows no defect in it; and under the finding in Western & Atlantic Railroad Company vs. Gentile, 198 S. E. 257, that this rule of law is laid down . . . that the failure of couplers to couple automatically by impact is not per se a violation of this Act . . . ." The District Court granted the motion, instructing the jury "that there is no evidence in this case . . . from which you could properly find there was defect in this . . . automatic coupling system on that ...

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