Messrs. Frederic D. McKenney, of Washington, D. C., and James L. Minnis, of St. Louis, Mo., for petitioners.
Mr. Roy W. Rucker, of Sedalia, Mo., for respondent.
Mr. Justice McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.
Action for personal injuries based on Employers' Liability Act (Comp. St. 8657-8665). Negligence is charged against petitioners as receivers of the Wabash Railroad Company.
Respondent Williams, plaintiff in the action, was engaged in tearing down on the line of the railroad, [254 U.S. 43, 44] and a defect in a clawbar, which he was directed to use, caused the bar to slip while he was attempting to draw a bolt; in consequence he lost his balance and fell to the ground, a distance of 12 feet. The defect, it is alleged, Williams did not know.
Negligence, however, was charged against him, and assumption of risk and contributory negligence.
He recovered a verdict in the sum of $5,000. Motion for new trial and arrest of judgment were denied, and the case was appealed to the Kansas City Court of Appeals.
The facts, as recited by the court, are that Williams was 21 years old, and had been reared on a farm. He entered the service of the railroad as a common laborer in August, 1915, and worked for it until injury in November of that year; his work being that of 'helping build steel bridges and taking down old ones.' He was ordered by the foreman in charge of the work to use a clawbar which was defective, in that the claws--
The plaintiff stated that to discover the defect required an inspection of the underside of the tool, and that, in obeying the order of the foreman, he did not pause to make such inspection, but used the tool without any but casual inspection of its top surface, which did not reveal the defect.
The railroad was engaged in interstate commerce and the cause of action, under the case as made, fell within the purview of the federal Employers' Liability Act (Comp. St. 8657-8665).
The conclusion of the court was that--
The court reversed the judgment. It denied a motion for rehearing, but considered and adjudged:
The Supreme Court, upon considering Fish v. Railway and other cases, decided that--
In other words, the court held that Williams' assumption of the risk did not have the consequence assigned to it by the Kansas City Court of Appeals, but, if it existed, amounted in legal effect only to contributory negligence, and that such negligence under the federal statute worked a reduction of damages, and not a defeat of the action, and, applying these elements of decision, adjudged that the 'case was well tried by the court nisi, and its judgment should be affirmed.' It was so ordered.
In its view of the federal statute and the defense under it, the court erred. Seaboard Air Line Railway Co. v. Horton, 233 U.S. 492 , 34 Sup. Ct. 635, L. R. A. 1915C, 1, Ann. Cas. 1915B, 475; Jacobs v. Southern Railway Co., 241 U.S. 229 , 36 Sup. Ct. 588; Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Co. v. De Atley, 241 U.S. 310 , 36 Sup. Ct. 564; Erie Railroad Co. v. Purucker Administratrix, 244 U.S. 320 , 37 Sup. Ct. 629; Boldt, Administratrix, v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 245 U.S. 441 , 38 Sup. Ct. 139. [254 U.S. 43, 46] And the requirement of the act prevails over any state law. Seaboard Air Line v. Horton, supra; Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Harold, 241 U.S. 371 , 36 Sup. Ct. 665; New York Central Railroad Co. v. Winfield, 244 U.S. 147 , 37 Sup. Ct. 546, L. R. A. 1918C, 439, Ann. Cas. 1917D, 1139; New Orleans Railroad Co. v. Harris, 247 U.S. 367 , 38 Sup. Ct. 535
Counsel for respondent, however, insists that the views of the Supreme Court upon the ruling of the assumption of risk is 'of purely academic interest and of no practical importance' in the consideration of the legality of the verdict and judgment in the trial court. That court, it is said, submitted the fact to the jury, and also submitted the relative contribution of Williams' negligence and the negligence of defendants to his injury. But this is an underestimate of the action of the trial court. The court was requested to instruct the jury that the effect of the assumption of risk by Williams incident to the use of the clawbar, and the circumstances under which it was used, was to relieve defendants from liability 'for the injury resulting therefrom.' The court refused the instruction as it was requested, and amended it by adding thereto:
The refusal and modification were assigned as error, and the Supreme Court considered and decided, as we have seen, that the fact was of no determining importance, and, if it existed, only constituted contributory negligence, and could operate only in reduction of the amount of recovery, not defeat recovery. This was error, as we have seen.
Judgment reversed, and cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.