Railway Safety III
Bill Long 10/29/05
Applying/Upholding the Act
Before looking at one of the first challenges to the Railway Safety Appliance Act of 1893 (the Act went into effect in on 1/1/1898), it might be helpful to place this Act side by side with the NY State health and safety statute passed in 1897 which was overturned in Lochner (1905). By the way, the Appliance Act, also a safety statute, would be upheld by the Court in 1904. That is, the railway safety act would be assumed constitutional (the challenge in 1904 was not to its validity but to its application to the facts of the case) while the statute setting conditions for bakeries was not. Well, to be more specific, what seemed to get the Court's dander up in Lochner was the limitation of working hours to 60/week (which violated a person's liberty to contract) while the Appliance Act of 1893 only related to safety equipment on trains and had nothing to do with work hours. Yet, both were health and safety laws; one was upheld and one was overturned. My discussion of Lochner is here; let's turn now to the challenge to the application of the 1893 Act.
Johnson v. Southern Pac (196 US 1 (Dec. 1904))
At issue in Johnson was whether the 1893 Act removed the applicability in this case of the doctrine of assumption of the risk, which, as we have seen, was the primary doctrine protecting the railroads from liability in the previous decades. Let's listen to the Court's brief recitation of the facts:
"August 5, 1900, Johnson was acting as head brakeman on a freight train of the Southern Pacific Co...On reaching the town of Promontory, UT, Johnson was directed to uncouple the engine from the train and couple it to a dining car, belonging to the company, which was standing on a side track, for the purpose of turning the car around preparatory to its being picked up and put on the next westbound passenger train. The engine and the passenger car were equipped, respectively with the Janney coupler and the Miller hook, so called [i.e., they complied with the 1893 Act]."
However, as luck would have it, the coupler seemed not to be working properly, Mr. Johnson climbed between the cars to make the connection and had his hand crushed between the engine bumper and dining car bumper, leading to amputation above the wrist. At trial the judge instructed the jury to find a verdict in defendant's favor, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Their reasons for affirming were interesting. Believing, as was the general assumption regarding statutes at the time, that statutes derogated only very narrowly from the common law (i.e., that they should be interpreted very strictly and quite narrowly), the Eight Circuit read Sec. 2 of the statute as not referring to locomotives. It provided:
"it shall be unlawful for any such common carrier to haul or permit to be hauled or used on its line any car used in moving interstate traffic not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and which can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going between the ends of the cars."
In other words, the lower court read the word "car" here as excluding locomotives because the word locomotive was used in sec. 1 and the court reasoned that if locomotives were intended to be referenced in sec. 2, specific mention of that fact was necessary. In addition, since the dining car at the time of the accident was just sitting on a side track, it wasn't involved in "interstate traffic" according to sec. 2. But, alternatively, both locomotive and dining car were equipped with couplers, and thus they complied with the Act. The Act didn't say that the couplers had to be working properly all the time. Thus we see what the plaintiffs were up against, when the courts had for years been construing railroad liability under the old common law rules.
The Supreme Court Speaks
So, how did the Supreme Court decide this case, the supposedly ultra-conservative Lochner Court, the Court hostile to health and safety regulations? It could easily have affirmed the lower court; indeed, the doctrine of narrow construal of statutes would have let them so decide. But, they unanimously reversed the Court of Appeals, and they did so with a ringing endorsement of Congressional power to enact a safety statute. Then, in dealing with the argument that the word "car" in sec. 2 only referred to non-locomotives, the Court held that "manifestly the word 'car' was used in its generic sense" (including locomotives). "'Any car' meant all kind of cars running on the rails, including locomotives."
What about the couplers that didn't work? The Ct. of Appeals had held that the Act required couplers of the same kind to couple properly but the Act said nothing about couplers of different kinds. The Supremes were not taken in by that argument. "The object was to protect the lives and limbs of railroad employees by rendering it unnecessary for a man operating the couplers to go between the ends of the cars; and that object would be defeated, not necessarily by the use of automatic couplers of different kinds, but if those different kinds would not automatically couple with each other." The appellate court's construal was too narrow. And, while the Court was at it, it found a quotation where statutes in derogation of the common law were not only to be construed strictly but also "to be construed sensibly."
Thus, in the space of four months, from Dec. 1904-April 1905, the Court handed down both Johnson and Lochner. While the decisions are not incompatible with each other, those who study Constitutional Law, even those who study the Court in some depth, haughtily dismiss the "Lochner Court" as a retrograde and benighted Court. In the case of railway safety, however, it took a moderate line, even overturning the more conservative (i.e., pro-railroad) decision of the Court of Appeals. Let's not paint with a bigger brush than is needed.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long