The general principle of law is well settled that one of several wrongdoers cannot recover against another wrongdoer, although he may have been compelled to pay all the damages for the wrong done. In many instances, however, cases have been taken out of this general rule, and it has been held inoperative in order that the ultimate loss may be visited upon the principal wrongdoer, who is made to respond for all the damages. One less culpable, although legally liable to third persons, may escape the payment of damages assessed against him by putting the ultimate loss upon the one principally responsible for the injury done.
A railroad company delivered a car with imperfect brakes to a terminal company. Both companies failed to discover the defect which could have been done by proper inspection. An employe of the terminal company was injured as a direct result of the defective brakes and sued the terminal company alone and recovered. The terminal company filed suit against the railroad company to recover the amount paid under the judgment. The terminal company argued that it was entitled to a contribution from the railroad company for damages it to paid its employee because the railroad company could have discovered the defect before turning the car over to the terminal company for use by its employee. The trial court denied the suit against the railroad company and the case was appealed.
Is the terminal company allowed to recover its loss from the railroad company?
The United States Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the rule that one of several wrongdoers could not recover against another wrongdoer, even if one had been compelled to pay all of the damages for the injury sustained. Neither plaintiff nor defendant was primarily responsible for the injuries, the Court explained, as neither party upheld its duty of inspection and the evidence failed to show that the defect was caused by defendant, which had obtained the car from another company. Finding both parties equally negligent, the Court refused to carve out an exception to the rule and impose a duty of contribution upon defendant because defendant did not create the dangerous condition from which the injuries resulted.