Crane v. Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway Company

RESPONDENT: Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway Company
LOCATION: Chimel's Home

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1969)

CITATION: 395 US 164 (1969)
ARGUED: Apr 24, 1969
DECIDED: May 26, 1969

Facts of the case


Media for Crane v. Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 24, 1969 in Crane v. Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway Company

Earl Warren:

Number 791, Ronald L. Crane versus Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Company.

Mr. Prettyman.

E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This case involves only a single question but one of great importance in the administration of the Federal Safety Appliance Act.

The question is whether in a suit under that Act brought by a non-railroad employee, the railroad can assert the defense of contributory negligence, and everyone concedes that the petitioner in this case is covered by the Act.

Everyone concedes that if this same suit were brought by a railroad employee, contributory negligence could not be asserted as a defense, even though all the facts were precisely the same and the violation of the Act was precisely the same as in the case of the non-railroad employee.

Here, petitioner Ronald Crane was employed as a meal house helper by Cargill, Incorporated.

His job was to spot, weigh and help load railroad cars which were delivered empty by the respondent railroad to Cargill, and after loading were picked up again by the respondent railroad for delivering in interstate commerce.

The trial court properly instructed the jury and this Court can assume that for the purpose of this case, the railway cars on which plaintiff was working were being used by the defendant as part of its system?

Now on the night of the accident, 1963, petitioner Crane and his co-worker Harris, were handling a string of six railroad cars.

Harris detached or uncoupled the two most northerly cars in the string and moved them along the tracks for weighing by means of an electric winch and cable.

When these cars were returned to the string, impact was made with the remaining four cars with sufficient force to move those cars some five feet, even though the brake was on them.

Now at that point, the two cars clearly should've re-coupled automatically to the string of four cars.

As this Court undoubtedly knows from prior cases, the Federal Safety Appliance Act as interpreted by this Court provides that railroad cars must be equipped with couplers which couple automatically by impact and when set in the proper position of course.

And which will thereafter remain coupled until set free by some purposeful act of control.

Now in this case, the knuckles were in proper position, and the cars collided with sufficient impact.

Both Crane and Harris who looked at the mechanism thought and testified that the knuckles were closed and that the couplers appeared to be locked, but in fact they were not locked.

Hours later, Harris began to move the entire string of cars forward by attaching the winch to the second car with Crane on the third car ready to put the brakes on, and the first two cars began to move out on their own, runaway cars uncoupled to the rest of the string.

Crane thought that these runaway cars were going to ram into an empty car which he thought he'd seen down the tracks and which he thought men were working, and consequently he quickly put the brake on the third car, he jumped down, he ran along the tracks, he climbed up a ladder on the back of the second car, began to turn the brake to stop these two runaway cars and he fell to the tracks to a cement pavement.

The bones in his feet were jammed up into his legs and he was permanently injured.

Now before proceeding further, I want to say just a word about the statement of facts given by respondent.

We've answered each of these statements with citations to the record in our reply brief, but the most direct answer to them is that precisely the same argument on the facts was made twice below to the trial court in an effort to keep this case from going to the jury.

Once at the conclusion of our evidence, once at the conclusion of all the evidence, twice the trial judge rejected that version of the facts, twice the trial said this case can go to the jury.

And consequently we submit that the respondent railroad is not free again here to reargue these facts which properly for the -- or for the jury and which went to the jury.

Crane brought his case in an Iowa State Court alleging violation of the Federal Safety Appliance Act and that the railroad had provided cars with defective couplers.

From the outset of this case, Crane argued that contributory negligence was not a defense, was not a defense where there was a violation of the Federal Safety Appliance Act.

That liability was absolute once a violation was shown to be approximate cause of his injury.

The railroad argued otherwise.

And the trial judge adopted the railroads argument and allowed the defense of contributory negligence to go to the jury and as a matter of fact put the burden on Crane to prove absence of contributory negligence rather than on the railroad to prove the presence of contributory negligence.

Potter Stewart:

I suppose that's the usual rule of Iowa law?