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FLANNELLY v. DELAWARE & H CO , 225 U.S. 597 (1912)

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United States Supreme Court


No. 132

Argued: Decided: June 10, 1912

[225 U.S. 597, 598]   Messrs. Frank W. Hackett and Paul J. Sherwood for petitioners.

[225 U.S. 597, 599]   Messrs. James H. Torrey, W. S. Opdyke, and Lewis E. Carr for respondent.

[225 U.S. 597, 601]  

Mr. Justice Van Devanter delivered the opinion of the court:

This was an action to recover damages for injuries and loss occasioned, as was alleged, by negligence of a railroad company, resulting in the collision of one of its trains with a vehicle passing over a grade crossing in Pennsylvania. The negligence charged against the defendant was the failure to give due and timely warning of the approach of the train, and the defense interposed was the freedom of the defendant from the negligence charged, and the failure of one of the plaintiffs, who was driving the vehicle, to take reasonable precautions, before attempting to drive over the crossing, to ascertain whether she could do so in safety. In the circuit court there was a verdict and judgment for the plaintiffs, and the defendant took the case on a writ of error to the circuit court of appeals. That court treated the record as presenting, in substance, two questions: First, whether there was any substantial evidence of actionable negligence on the part of the defendant, and, second, whether the evidence conclusively established the defense of contributory negligence. Upon examining the evidence purporting to be set out in the record, the circuit court of appeals answered the first question favorably to the plaintiffs and the second favorably to the defendant, and accordingly reversed the judgment. -- L.R.A.(N.S.) --, 97 C.C.A. 112, 172 Fed. 328. The case was then brought here on a writ of certiorari granted on the petition of the plaintiffs. [225 U.S. 597, 602]   Assuming, but without so deciding, that the state of the record was such as to justify the circuit court of appeals in examining the evidence and determining whether it conclusively established the defense of contributory negligence, we come to consider whether that question was rightly decided.

As is often true in such cases, some matters were not disputed at the trial, while others were the subject of conflicting testimony or of testimony from which different inferences reasonably could be drawn. The matters not disputed were these: The injury occurred in the daytime, at a grade crossing in a small country village. The defendant's tracks, which were three in number, ran in a northerly and southerly direction and crossed the highway at right angles. About 700 feet south of the crossing the tracks curved to the west, and when cars were occupying the east track south of the crossing a traveler on the highway east of the crossing could not see a train approaching from the south on either side of the other tracks. Mrs. Flannelly, one of the plaintiffs and wife of the other, had occasion to drive along the highway from her home, a few miles east of the railroad, to a point on the other side of it. Seated in the vehicle with her were two small boys. As she neared the crossing a freight train was approaching on the east track from the north. She stopped about 40 feet from that track and waited for the train to pass, which took some time, as it was long and moving slowly. Before this train obscured the view she looked along the tracks to the south, and observed that no train was in sight, coming from that direction. After the rear of the freight train passed about 150 feet beyond the crossing she drove to the first track, or near it, and, on looking in both directions and seeing no train approaching, started to drive over the tracks. Her view at that time extended 300 feet or more to the south along the second track. As she was passing over that [225 U.S. 597, 603]   track a passenger train approaching thereon from the south sounded a sharp danger signal, and soon struck a rear wheel of her vehicle, thereby wrecking the latter, inflicting bodily injuries on her, and killing one of the boys. The train was moving at a rate of from 50 to 60 miles an hour, or from 73 to 88 feet per second. There was also testimony, more or less disputed, from which the jury reasonably could have found that no whistle was sounded by the passenger train at the place where such a warning of its approach was usually and properly given; that the freight train came to a stop before Mrs. Flannelly drove on the tracks; that she listened attentively for signals given by approaching trains, but heard none, other than the danger signal, which came too late to be of avail; that her horse became restive and nervous before she advanced to the crossing; that when the danger signal was sounded by the passenger train the horse halted, reared, and delayed their progress between five and ten seconds; and that as that signal was sounded she saw the passenger train emerge from a volume of smoke or steam which was hanging over the tracks to the south.

The law requires of one going upon or over a railroad crossing the exercise of such care for his own protection as a reasonably prudent person ordinarily would take in the same or like circumstances, including the use of his faculties of sight and hearing. And, generally speaking, whether such care has been exercised is a question of fact for the jury, especially if the evidence be conflicting or such that different inferences reasonably may be drawn from it.

We think the evidence in this case, when tested by these standards, required that the defense of contributory negligence be submitted to the jury as a question of fact, as was done by the circuit court. The conclusion to the contrary in the circuit court of appeals was rested upon [225 U.S. 597, 604]   the theory that the freight train did not stop after clearing the crossing, but continued in a southerly direction, thereby giving promise that the obstruction to the view along the tracks on that side of the crossing would quickly disappear. But a careful examination of the record satisfies us that there was evidence from which the jury could well have found that the train came to a full stop about 150 feet south of the crossing before Mrs. Flannelly started to cross over. If it did, she hardly could be declared negligent for failing to await its further movements, of which she knew nothing. Besides, if the action of her horse was as described, she ought not to be charged with negligence in not anticipating it.

Other questions were discussed at bar and in the briefs, but as, in the view which we take of the evidence examined by the Circuit Court of Appeals, the judgment of the Circuit Court should have been affirmed, the other questions need not be considered.

Judgment reversed.

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