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U.S. Supreme Court

Railroad Company v. Barron, 72 U.S. 5 Wall. 90 90 (1866)

Railroad Company v. Barron

72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 90


1. A railroad company, which grants the use of its road to another company is responsible for accidents caused to passengers which it itself carries by the negligence of the trains of the other company thus running by its permission.

2. When a statute -- giving a right of action to the executor of a person killed by such an act as would, if death had not ensued, entitled such person to maintain an action for damages -- provides that the amount recovered shall be for the exclusive benefit of the widow and next of kin in the proportion provided by law in the distribution of personal property left by persons dying intestate, and that

"in every such action the jury may give damages as they shall deem a fair and just compensation with reference to pecuniary injuries resulting from such death, &c., not exceeding &c.,"

it is not necessary to the recovery that the widow and next of kin should have had a legal claim on the deceased, if he had survived, for their support.

3. Semble that statutes of this kind are enacted, as respects the measure of damages, upon the idea that as a general fact the personal assets of the deceased would take the direction given them by the law governing the case of intestates. Hence any damages given must, as a general thing, be so distributed, even though the party have left a will not so devoting his property.

4. The damages in these cases must depend very much upon all the facts and circumstances of the particular case. And as when the suit is brought by the party himself, for injuries to himself, there can be no fixed measure of compensation for the pain and anguish of body and mind, nor for the loss of time and care in business, or the permanent injury to health and body, so when it is brought by the representative for his death, the pecuniary injury resulting from the death to the next of kin is equally uncertain and indefinite. In the latter and more difficult case, as in the former one, often difficult also, the result must be left to turn mainly upon the sound sense and deliberate judgment of the jury, applied, as above stated, to all the facts and circumstances.

Error to the Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the suit below having been one against a railroad company to recover damages for the death of a passenger killed by its negligence.

A statute of Illinois enacts:

"SEC. 1. That whenever the death of a person shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default and the act, neglect, or default is such as would, if death had not ensued, have entitled

Page 72 U. S. 91

the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages in respect thereof, then and in every such case the person who or company or corporation which would have been liable if death had not ensued shall be liable to an action for damages notwithstanding the death of the person injured, and although the death shall have been caused under such circumstances as amount to felony."

"SEC. 2. Every such action shall be brought by and in the name of the personal representatives of such deceased person, and the amount recovered in every such action shall be for the exclusive benefit of the widow and next of kin of such deceased person, and shall be distributed to such widow and next of kin, in the proportion provided by law, in relation to the distribution of personal property left by persons dying intestate; and in every such action the jury may give such damages as they shall deem a fair and just compensation with reference to the pecuniary injuries resulting from such death, to the wife and next of kin of such deceased person, not exceeding the sum of five thousand dollars."

With this statute in force, Barron's executor brought a suit against the Illinois Central Railroad Company to recover damages for the death of his testator occasioned by the negligence of the company in conveying him as a passenger.

The deceased was killed while in the act of leaving the car in obedience to the orders of the conductor, who apprehended an immediate collision with an express train that was coming up behind with great speed, and which struck the car with such violence in the rear as to split and drive it on each side of the baggage car in front. The Illinois company owned the road, but had granted or leased to the Michigan Central Railroad Company, of which the express train was one of the line, the privilege of running their trains on this part of the road.

The testator was a bachelor, thirty-five years old, and had an estate of about $35,000, all of which, as it was stated in the argument, he left by his will to his father. He was an attorney by profession, but for four years prior to his death had been judge of the County Court of Cook County, Illinois. His term of office having then recently expired, he had resumed, or was about to resume, the practice of his profession, chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 72 U. S. 92

with a fair promise, as the evidence tended to show, of doing as well as before he was elected judge. His professional income prior to his election as judge, had been about $3,000 dollars per annum.

The plaintiff was his father, and he left brothers and sisters, one of whom had formerly received some assistance from him for support.

The defendant's counsel asked the court to charge the jury as follows:

"1st. That the statute under which the action was brought intends to give no damages for the injury received by the deceased, but refers wholly to the pecuniary loss which the next of kin may be found to have sustained. That it makes their pecuniary loss the sole measure of damages, and that the satisfaction of that loss is therefore the sole purpose for which an action of this kind can be instituted, there being nothing to be allowed for bereavement. And that it is incumbent on the plaintiff, before he can recover anything more than nominal damages, to show by the evidence that there are persons in existence entitled to claim the indemnity given by the law and that they have sustained a pecuniary loss justifying their claim."

"2d. That to entitle the plaintiff to recover anything beyond merely nominal damages, the parties for whose benefit the action is brought must be shown by the evidence to have had at the time of the death of Barron a legal interest in his life, and that by his death they have been deprived of something to which they had a legal right."

"3d. That if the persons for whose benefit this action is brought have received in consequence of the death of said Barron, and out of this estate inherited by them from him, a pecuniary benefit greater than the maximum amount of damages which could under any circumstances be recovered in this action, then, as a matter of law, they have by the death of said Barron sustained no actual pecuniary injury for which compensation can be recovered in this action."

"4th. That if the collision of the two trains of cars in question and the death resulting therefrom were occasioned solely by the carelessness or default of the persons in charge of the express train, and that the defendant had no authority or control

Page 72 U. S. 93

over such persons, but that they were wholly under the authority and direction of the Michigan Central Ra72 U. S. 93

over such persons, but that they were wholly under the authority and direction of the Michigan Central Ra72 U. S. 93

over such persons, but that they were wholly under the authority and direction of the Michigan Central Railroad Company, then the defendant is not liable in this action even for nominal damages."

But the court refused so to charge the jury, and charged as follows:

"It is contended by the defendant that as Barron was never married, the next of kin, being his father, brothers, and sisters, had no claim on him for support or services, and therefore there could have been no pecuniary loss to them by his death."

"We cannot adopt this construction of the law, but charge you that there can be a recovery if the deceased left no kin surviving him who had any legal claim on him if living, for support."

"The cause of action is given in the first section of the act in clear and unmistakable terms. If the injured party, by the common law, had a right to sue if he had lived, then if he dies, his representatives can bring an action."

"Many individuals who lose their lives by the fault of persons and corporations are of age, unmarried, and have no next of kin dependent on them for support. We cannot suppose that the statute intended to give the representatives of such persons the right to sue in one section and make that right nugatory in the second section by depriving them of all damages."

"The policy of the law was evidently to make common carriers more circumspect in regard to the lives entrusted to their care. They were responsible at common law if through their fault broken limbs were the result, but escaped responsibility if death ensued. To remedy this evil and provide a continuing responsibility was, in the opinion of the court, the object of the law."

"We do not think it requisite to prove present actual pecuniary loss. It can rarely be done. The attempt to do it would substitute the opinion of witnesses for the conclusions of the jury. The facts proved will enable the jury to decide on the proper measure of responsibility. Some cases are harder than others, and the law intends that the jury shall discriminate in different cases. There is no fixed measure of damages and no artificial rule by which the damages in a given case can be computed."

"The jury are not to take in consideration the pain suffered by the deceased, or the wounded feelings of surviving relatives, and no damages are to be given by way of punishment. "

Page 72 U. S. 94

"In this case, the next of kin are the parties who were interested in the life of the deceased. They were interested in the further accumulations which he might have added to his estate, and which might hereafter descend to them."

"The jury has a right, in estimating the amount of pecuniary injury, to take into consideration all the circumstances attending the death of Barron -- the relations between him and his next of kin, the amount of his property, the character of his business, and the prospective increase in wealth likely to accrue to a man of his age with the business and means which he had. There is a possibility in the chances of business that Barron's estate might have decreased, rather than increased, and this possibility the jury may consider. The jury also has a right to take into consideration the contingency that he might have married and his property descended in another channel."

"And there may be other circumstances which might affect the question of pecuniary loss which it is difficult for the court to particularize, but which will occur to you. The intention of the statute was to give a compensation for the pecuniary loss which the widow (if any) or the next of kin might sustain by the death of the party, and the jury are to determine, as men of experience and observation, from the proof what that loss is."

"In order to render a verdict for the plaintiff, it is necessary that the defendant should have been in fault."

"The Illinois Central Railroad Company engaged to carry Judge Barron safely from Hyde Park to Chicago, and as a common carrier was bound to the most exact care and diligence required for the safety of passengers. . . ."

"It is not a question which train was mostly in fault, but whether the train of the defendant was in fault at all. It is for the jury to say from the evidence whether the employees of the Illinois Central road used the necessary degree of care and diligence in the management of their train on that morning. . . ."

"We understand that the road on which the accident occurred belonged to the defendants, and by its charter was under its sole control to carry passengers and property, and if it allowed the trains of the Michigan Central to run over it under the management of the agents of the Michigan Central, it should be done in such a manner as not to interfere with the safety of the passengers of the defendant, and as to such passengers the fault

Page 72 U. S. 95

of the Michigan Central road in running their train is the fault of the defendant."

Verdict and judgment for $3,750 damages. The case was now here on exceptions to the charge as made, and on the refusal to charge as requested. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 72 U. S. 104

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