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NEW ORLEANS & N. E. R. CO. v. HARRIS , 247 U.S. 367 (1918)

U.S. Supreme Court

NEW ORLEANS & N. E. R. CO. v. HARRIS , 247 U.S. 367 (1918)

247 U.S. 367

NEW ORLEANS & N. E. R. CO. et al.
No. 276.

Argued and Submitted April 30, 1918.
Decided June 3, 1918.

[247 U.S. 367, 368]   Messrs. J. Blanc Monroe, of New Orleans, La., and Robert H. Thompson, of Jackson, Miss., for plaintiffs in error.

Mr. Thomas G. Fewell, of Meridian, Miss., for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

While employed in interstate commerce by plaintiff in error, a common carrier by railroad then engaging in such commerce, Van Harris a brakeman was run over by the tender of an engine moving in the yard at New Orleans, Louisiana-February 5, 1914. He died within a few minutes without regaining consciousness. Having qualified as administratrix, his mother (defendant in error), charging negligence and relying upon the federal Employers' Liability Act, sued for damages in a state court for Lauderdale county, Mississippi. A judgment in her favor was affirmed by the Supreme Court without opinion. [247 U.S. 367, 369]   The declaration contained no averment of conscious pain or suffering by deceased. It alleged:

It further charged that the dead son had been his mother's sole support but contained no reference to his widow.

One witness who claimed to have seen the accident gave evidence tending to show negligence by the railroad; but his presence at the scene was not left free from doubt and other eyewitnesses narrated the circumstances differently. Concerning deceased's contributions to his mother's support, she said he was her sole dependence, paid her house rent, gave her something to eat, looked after her, was regularly at work and would bring home $30 or $40 a month. Her statements are the only evidence concerning the son's marriage and widow. He duly married Mollie on an undisclosed date; after living together for six months he fell ill and she left; thereafter her whereabouts were unknown to him; she was alive at time of trial (October, 1914); he left no child. Nothing indicates a divorce proceeding. Answering 'Do you know whether Mollie ever married anybody else or not?' the witness replied: 'I don't know, sir; I hear them say she married.'

Upon request of the administratrix, the following instructions (among others) were given to the jury:

The so-called 'Prima Facie Act' of Mississippi, set [247 U.S. 367, 371]   out below,1 provides that in actions against railroads for damages proof of injury inflicted by an engine propelled by steam shall be prima facie evidence of negligence. Relying upon and undertaking to apply this statute, the trial court gave the quoted instructions, and in so doing, we think committed error.

The federal courts have long held that where suit is brought against a railroad for injuries to an employe resulting from its negligence, such negligence is an affirmative fact which plaintiff must establish. The Nitro-Glycerine Case, 15 Wall. 524, 537; Patton v. Texas & Pacific Railway Co., 179 U.S. 658, 663 , 21 S. Sup. Ct. 275; Looney v. Metropolitan Railroad Co., 200 U.S. 480, 487 , 26 S. Sup. Ct. 303; Southern Ry. Co. v. Bennett, 233 U.S. 80, 85 , 34 S. Sup. Ct. 566. In proceedings brought under the federal Employers' Liability Act rights and obligations depend upon it and applicable principles of common law as interpreted and applied in federal courts; and negligence is essential to recovery. Seaboard Air Line v. Horton, 233 U.S. 492, 501 , 502 S., 34 Sup. Ct. 635, L. R. A. 1915C, 1, Ann. Cas. 1915B. 475; Southern Ry. v. Gray, 241 U.S. 333, 339 , 36 S. Sup. Ct. 558; New York Central R. R. Co. v. Winfield, 244 U.S. 147, 150 , 37 S. Sup. Ct. 546, Ann. Cas. 1917D, 1139; Erie R. R. Co. v. Winfield, 244 [247 U.S. 367, 372]   U. S. 170, 172, 37 Sup. Ct. 556. These established principles and our holding in Central Vermont Ry. v. White, 238 U.S. 507, 511 , 512 S., 35 Sup. Ct. 865, Ann. Cas. 1916B, 252, we think make it clear that the question of burden of proof is a matter of substance and not subject to control by laws of the several states.

It was also error to give quoted instruction number eight. Since the deceased endured no conscious suffering he had no right of action; and possible recovery was limited to pecuniary loss sustained by the designated beneficiary. Garrett v. Louisville & Nashville R. R., 235 U.S. 308, 312 , 35 S. Sup. Ct. 32; Ches. & Ohio Ry. v. Kelly, 241 U.S. 485, 489 , 36 S. Sup. Ct. 630, L. R. A. 1917F, 367.

The act makes the widow sole beneficiary when there is no child and only in the absence of both may parents be considered. The deceased left a widow and although they had lived apart no claim is made that rights and liabilities consequent upon marriage had disappeared under local law. Of course, we do not go beyond the particular facts here disclosed. In the circumstances, proof of the mother's pecuniary loss could not support a recovery.

The judgment below is reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.



[ Footnote 1 ] Mississippi Code 1906, 1985, as amended by chapter 215, Laws 1912, p. 290:

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