Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Watn v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co.

decided.: June 13, 1958.


Author: Biggs

Before BIGGS, Chief Judge, and GOODRICH and KALODNER, Circuit Judges.

BIGGS, Chief Judge.

This action was brought by the administratrix of the estate of John Watn who was killed when the engine of a Pennsylvania-Reading Seashores Lines (Seashore) train struck him while he was in the employ of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (Pennsylvania) as a fireman. The accident occurred in New Jersey. Recovery is sought against both Pennsylvania and Seashore. The cause of action against Pennsylvania is based on the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C.A. ยง 51 et seq. The cause of action against Seashore is based on diversity of citizenship, and the plaintiff seeks to enforce rights under the New Jersey Wrongful Death and Survival Statutes. N.J.S.A. 2A:31-1 et seq. The federal act and the law of New Jersey are respectively applicable.

The cause was tried by a jury. Seashore moved for a directed verdict asserting that Watn was guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law. The trial court denied this motion, and thereafter the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff against both defendants in the amount of $63,000. After judgment both defendants moved for a new trial. The district court denied both motions.

On these appeals both defendants urge that they are entitled to new trials. Pennsylvania bases its motion on the theory that the verdict as to it was contrary to the weight of the evidence; that to its grave prejudice counsel for the plaintiff showed the jury a plan of the yard which had not been introduced into evidence; and that the charge of the trial judge was inadequate in that it failed to explain to the jury the difference between liability under the Federal Employers' Liability Act and liability under the New Jersey Wrongful Death and Survival Statutes. Seashore seeks a new trial only on the basis of the trial court's alleged erroneous charge. Seashore, however, seeks a new trial only as an alternative for it continues to contend that the overwhelming weight of the uncontradicted evidence establishes Watn's contributory negligence and that therefore it was entitled to a directed judgment as a matter of law.

We cannot agree that Seashore is entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law. It is established by the applicable New Jersey decisions that contributory negligence ceases to be a question of fact for the jury and becomes an issue of law for the court only in those cases where the "contrary hypothesis is not fairly admissible." Pangborn v. Central Railroad Co. of New Jersey, 1955, 18 N.J. 84, 93, 112 A.2d 705, 709.*fn1 Where a determination of contributory negligence depends upon the conclusion to be reached from a variety of circumstances considered in relation one to the other, the question of contributory negligence remains one of fact for the jury. Mellon v. Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, 1951, 7 N.J. 415, 81 A.2d 747; Piacente v. New York Central R. Co., 1944, 131 N.J.L. 481, 36 A.2d 921.

Watn, a Pennsylvania fireman, immediately prior to the accident was riding on the rear portion of the left side steps of a Pennsylvania diesel locomotive which was backing slowly into the Camden Yard of Pennsylvania. Watn was riding on the left side of the diesel in relation to the front of the engine but was on the right side of the engine in relation to the direction in which it was proceeding. The Seashore train, en route from Wildwood to Camden, New Jersey, was proceeding to the Camden Yard on track No. 2. Moving at the rate of 8 to 10 miles an hour the Seashore train crossed-over to track No. 3, and eventually to track No. 4, the latter track being the one immediately alongside that on which the Pennsylvania diesel was moving.

When the Seashore train was at a distance of approximately a city block from the Pennsylvania diesel the fireman of the Seashore train observed Watn standing on the steps of the Pennsylvania diesel. He continued to observe Watn in that position but failed to notify his engineer of this fact. The engineer testified that a beam in the Seashore engine cab prevented him from seeing Watn until the Seashore train's engine was even with the front end of the Pennsylvania diesel, i.e., the other end of the engine from the steps on which Watn was standing. There is, however, evidence in the record that the Seashore engineer could have seen Watn at a distance of not less than 200 feet, had he been looking toward him. The Seashore Engineer testified, however, that instead of looking toward Watn he was looking beyond the point where Watn was to a yard flagman who was signalling him that the Seashore train had the right to enter the yard. There was testimony to the effect that the Seashore train could have been halted within 100 feet had this been attempted.

It seems clear from the evidence that the Seashore train did not blow its whistle until the forward part of the train, a Budd five-car train, with the engine and the engineer in the fore part of the leading car, was even with that portion of the Pennsylvania diesel farthest from the point where Watn was standing. There was evidence that this blast was not intended to warn Watn but rather as a signal to the flagman. So much is reasonably clear from the evidence. But immediately thereafter Watn was struck by the Seashore train and was fatally injured. No one saw Watn descend from the steps. His body was found on the tracks. It is reasonable to suppose if he had remained on the steps he would not have been injured.

The accident occurred in the Camden Yard between Second and Third Streets. A crucial question of fact arises as to whether the Seashore train came on to track No. 4 between Third and Second Streets or between Fourth and Third Streets. If the former was the case it follows that the Seashore train suddenly crossed-over to track No. 4 at a point where it was very close to the Pennsylvania diesel. Under the law of New Jersey there is a presumption of the care upon the part of a deceased in a negligence case. McConachy v. Skalerew, 1934, 113 N.J.L. 17; 171 A. 817; Danskin v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 1910, 79 N.J.L. 526, 76 A. 975. From the facts at bar the jury could have inferred that before descending from the diesel Watn looked up track No. 4 to see if it was safe for him to descend, and that having observed the Seashore train on track No. 3 and no train on track No. 4, he stepped down with no reason to anticipate a sudden cross-over by the Seashore train to track No. 4. If this was so the jury would have been entitled to infer that Watn was not guilty of contributory negligence. He was not required to go on looking down track No. 4 but was entitled to go on about his railroad business. If, on the other hand, the Seashore train was on track No. 4 for some considerable length of time and did not make a sudden cross-over from track No. 3 to track No. 4, the presumption of due care would have been rebutted and Watn could have been found guilty of contributory negligence. A pivotal issue of fact was therefore presented. Since the jury, with rational bases, could have found either way, it is clear that the issue of contributory negligence in this case was a question of fact for the jury and not an issue for the court. The court below did not err in sending this question to the jury.

The reliance placed by Seashore on the decision of the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Siegler Co. v. Norton, 1952, 8 N.J. 374, 86 A.2d 8 is misplaced. That case dealt with a railroad crossing situation in which the railroad's right of passage as against the right of the crossing traveller to enter a track area placed an extremely heavy duty of care on the traveller and allowed the engineer to make the reasonable assumption that the traveller would use the crossing with due regard to the railroad's right of way. Rafferty v. Erie R. Co., 1901, 66 N.J.L. 444, 49 A. 456. The situation presented is distant from the facts of the case at bar which involves the death of a railroad fireman lawfully working on railroad premises and whose presence should be anticipated by train engineers. See Pangborn v. Central Railroad Co. of New Jersey, supra. Seashore clearly is not entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law.

We come next to the issues presented by the requests for new trials. The first contention raised by Pennsylvania is that the verdict as to it was against the weight of the evidence. There is undisputed evidence in the record that Pennsylvania allowed large clinkers to lie in the spaces between tracks 4 and 5, and that several of the ties were a foot or so longer than other ties, this being caused by the failure of Pennsylvania to remove or trim the longer ties which had formerly carried a third rail which had been removed some years before the accident. There also was testimony to the effect that the space between the tracks at the point of the accident was four or five inches narrower than that between the neighboring tracks at that location. All of these factors created a hazardous place to work. While apparently conceding that it allowed these conditions to persist, Pennsylvania argues that there is no evidence from which the jury could infer that these conditions caused or contributed to the accident.

We cannot agree. Under the principles of causation and liability laid down by the Supreme Court of the United States in F.E.L.A. cases we conclude that the jury was entitled to infer that Watn descended from Pennsylvania's diesel engine to the No. 4 track and at that moment, finding himself in a position of peril due to a sudden cross-over to that track by the Seashore train, then tried to re-board the Pennsylvania diesel or took some other action in an attempt to avoid injury, and that because of the condition of the track and roadbed referred to either slipped on the clinkers or stumbled on the irregular ties or was unable to avoid being hit by the Seashore train because of the unusually narrow clearance. Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 1957, 352 U.S. 500, 77 S. Ct. 443, 1 L. Ed. 2d 493; Schulz v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 1956, 350 U.S. 523, 76 S. Ct. 608, 100 L. Ed. 668; Lavender v. Kurn, 1946, 327 U.S. 645, 66 S. Ct. 740, 744, 90 L. Ed. 916.

The jury, having found against both defendants, the plaintiff is entitled to every reasonable inference in her favor which may be drawn from the evidence. We are faced here with a disputed issue of fact which we are not free to redetermine in this court. That the jury's verdict necessarily involved some degree of speculation and conjecture is no basis for a new trial. As was stated in Lavender v. Kurn, supra, 327 U.S. at page 653, 66 S. Ct. at page 744, "[A] measure of speculation and conjecture is required on the part of those whose duty it is to settle the dispute by choosing what seems to them to be the most reasonable inference." See also McBride v. Toledo Terminal R. Co., 1957, 354 U.S. 517, 77 S. Ct. 1398, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1534; Gibson v. Thompson, 1957, 355 U.S. 18, 78 S. Ct. 2, 2 L. Ed. 2d 1; Stinson v. Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co., 1957, 355 U.S. 62, 78 S. Ct. 136, 2 L. Ed. 2d ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.