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The assumption, that railroads, under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C.S. §§ 51-59, are made insurers where the issue of negligence is left to the jury, is inadmissible. It rests on another assumption, this one unarticulated, that juries will invariably decide negligence questions against railroads. This is contrary to fact. Moreover, there is no reason, so long as the jury system is the law of the land, and the jury is made the tribunal to decide disputed questions of fact, why it should not decide questions of negligence as well as others.
The employee, while performing duties as a railroad switchman of the defendant railroad, was injured by falling into a pit in the defendant's railroad coach yard, when crossing the pit on a narrow boardway. In his action for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (the “Act”) the trial judge, on motion of the railroad, directed the jury to return a verdict in its favor. The state supreme court affirmed.
Under the Act, were employers absolute insurers against personal injury damages suffered by its employees?
The Supreme Court overturned the decision that affirmed the trial court's judgment. The Court noted that under the Act, the employers were not absolute insurers against personal injury damages suffered by its employees, such as petitioner, but were liable only for its own negligence in causing the employee's injuries. The Court noted further that the employee's evidence tended to show that a makeshift bridge, comprised of a narrow board, that spanned a pit over which the employee and other co-workers habitually travelled, had become so greasy and oily so as to render it unsafe, and that the employers were aware that its employees were using the board. As such, the Court ruled, it was improper for the trial court to direct a verdict in the employers' favor in the employee's suit arising from his falling from that bridge. The issue of the employers' negligence, the Court ruled, was one for the jury to determine.