United States v. Seaboard Air Lines Railroad Company

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Seaboard Air Lines Railroad Company
LOCATION: Fleetwood Paving Co.

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 361 US 78 (1959)
ARGUED: Oct 19, 1959
DECIDED: Nov 09, 1959

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Seaboard Air Lines Railroad Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 19, 1959 in United States v. Seaboard Air Lines Railroad Company

Earl Warren:

Number 10, United States of America, Petitioner, versus Seaboard Air Line Railroad Company.

Mr. Davis.

John F . Davis:

Mr. Chief Justice, if it please the Court.

This case involves a simple question on the application of the Safety Appliance Law.

Specifically, the issue here is whether the air brake requirements of that law were required to be followed by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, in its performance of certain terminal operations in Hopewell, Virginia.

It -- it had an -- on four occasions, moved strings of cars, about 25 cars each, a distance of about two miles in making deliveries to or making pickups from industrial establishments in Hopewell.

And in all of these occasions the air brakes were not connected.

The United States brought suit for civil penalties $100 for each violation, $400 is the total.

Now, although this penalty is small, the issue in this case is of tremendous importance because it affects the -- the lives and the -- the safety of thousands of trainmen.

When President Harrison asked for this legislation back in 1890, he submitted figures to the Congress that showed that during the year preceding his message, 2450 trainmen had been killed in operating accidents and 22,390 has been injured and of these, in two years, over 1000 had been injured in falls from the tops of cars, which were due, in part, to the use handbrakes.

One of the Senators, in discussing the legislation, estimated that in the course of eight years, the equivalent of the entire railroad operating force would be killed or injured.

And so the Congress passed the legislation.

And I looked at the reports on safety for the year 1958 and the total of persons killed in operating accidents, trainmen was down to 154.

Potter Stewart:

You're not suggesting that this statute (Inaudible)

John F . Davis:

No, but this statute, I'm --

Potter Stewart:

(Voice Overlap) --

John F . Davis:

-- suggesting is -- is important and has had an important effect.

We -- we can't tell how much.

The general question before the Court is whether this legislation is going to be enforced regarding to its explicit terms of whether the railroad shall be allowed to return in part, at least, to the situation that they were in before the legislation was passed.

Now, the terms of the law which are before us, the questions of law are not difficult.

The statute is set forth -- the statutes are set forth on pages 2 and 3 of my brief.

The first provision, Section 1 of the Act, was passed in 1893 and it provides for power brakes to be placed on cars, but it provides no specific measure of how -- how many.

It says instead that they shall be sufficient so that the engineer may control the speed of the train.

This proved to be not sufficiently definite and in 1903, it was amended and the provision which is still in effect appears at the bottom of page 3 of our brief.

And in this law, they provided that at least 50% of the -- of the cars should be provided with air brakes, that the Interstate Commerce Commission might after hearing, increase though not decrease, this number.

And that all other power brake cars, that were part of the train, should be connected.

So that they were required to carry only 50% with power brakes, but if added cars did have power brakes, they too must be connected.

And the Interstate Commerce Commission has implemented that by its regulations which appears at the top of page 4, providing that not less than 85% of the cars must have their power brakes connected.

In -- in actual operating effect, all the brakes -- all the cars must be connected because in effect, all cars do have power brakes and since you are required to connect any that do have them, in effect, all of the brakes -- all of the cars must be connected at this time.

Now, the facts are these.