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October 1, 1875


ERROR to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Iowa. This action against the railroad company to recover damages for injuries received by Mrs. Arms, by reason of a collision of a train of cars with another train, resulted in a verdict and judgment for $4,000. The company sued out this writ of error. The bill of exceptions discloses this state of facts: Mrs. Arms, in October, 1870, was a passenger on defendant's train of cars, which, while running at a speed of fourteen or fifteen miles an hour, collided with another train moving in an opposite direction on the same track. The jar occasioned by the collision was light, and more of a push than a shock. The fronts of the two engines were demolished, and a new engine removed the train. This was all the testimony offered by either party as to the character of the collision, and the cause of it; but there was evidence tending to show that Mrs. Arms was thrown from her seat, and sustained the injuries of which she complained. After the evidence had been submitted to the jury, the court gave them the following instruction: 'If you find that the accident was caused by the gross negligence of the defendant's servants controlling the train, you may give to the plaintiffs punitive or exemplary damages.'

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Davis delivered the opinion of the court.

Mr. John W. Cary for the plaintiff in error.

The court below erred in its charge to the jury, because there was no testimony which warranted the submission of the question of gross negligence for any purpose.

The undisputed facts raise the simple legal proposition, Does the mere negligence of the defendant's servants, which resulted in the collision, authorize the jury to give punitive or exemplary damages?

It is submitted that the authorities support the negative of this proposition. Philadelphia & Reading R.R. Co. v. Derby, 14 How. 468; Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore R.R. Co. v. Quipley, 21 id. 202-213; Finney v. Milwaukee & Mississippi R.R. Co., 10 Wis. 388; Craker v. Chicago & North-western R.R. Co., 36 id. 657; Cleghorn v. New York Central & Hudson River R.R. Co., 56 N. Y. 44; Hamilton v. Third Avenue R.R. Co., 53 id. 25; Weed v. Railroad, 17 id. 362; Hagan v. Providence & Worcester R.R. Co., 3 R. I. 88; Ackerson v. Erie R.R. Co., 32 N. J. 254; New Orleans, Jackson, & Great Northern R.R. Co. v. Stathan, 42 Miss. 607; Turner v. North Beach & Mission R.R. Co., 34 Cal. 594; Wardrobe v. California Stage Co., 7 id. 118; Du Laurans v. First Division of St. Paul & Pacific, 15 Minn. 49; Great Western R.R. Co. v. Miller, 19 Mich. 305-315; Pennsylvania Co. v. Kelly, 31 Penn. 372; Heil v. Gendening, 42 id. 493; Hill v. The New Orleans & Opelousas & Great Western R.R. Co., 11 La. Ann. 292; Peoria Bridge Association v. Loomis, 20 Ill. 235; Chicago & Rock Island R.R. Co. v. MeKean, 40 id. 218; Louisville & Portland R.R. Co. v. Smith, 2 Duv. 556; Kentucky Central R.R. Co. v. Dills, 4 Bush, 593.

Mr. C. C. Nourse for the defendants in error.

The petition charges the plaintiff in error with gross negligence and carelessness in suffering the trains to collide. The company offered no evidence to explain the cause of the collision. It is not to be presumed that the cause was known to the plaintiff; but that it was known to the company cannot be doubted, and the absence of testimony tending to excuse or palliate it affords the strongest possible presumption that no excuse or palliating circumstances existed. This presents, therefore, a case, not simply of collision, which is of itself prima facie evidence of gross negligence, but one in which the railroad company, standing dumb in the face of an accusation and charge of gross carelessness and negligence, offers no word of explanation or excuse for the calamity. The jury, therefore, were fully warranted in finding negligence of the grossest character. It remains to be considered, whether in a case of gross carelessness, without palliating circumstances, a railroad company is liable for exemplary or punitive damages.

Gross negligence, where the highest degree of care is required, should be, and from motives of public policy is, regarded as criminal; and the elementary works furnish many instances where it is punished as a crime. Whart. Am. Crim. Law, sect. 1002 et seq.

In no cases is the application of this doctrine more salutary than in those where railway companies are parties.

Recognizing this fact, the legislatures of many of the States have prescribed severe punishment for negligence in the management of trains upon railways.

'Gross negligence,' as used in this connection, has acquired a meaning in the law akin to wantonness. In general, it is defined to be the absence of slight diligence. Bouvier, tit. 'Negligence.' It is utter recklessness. Gross negligence of a railway company in the management of its passenger trains is nothing less than an utter disregard of human life; and public policy requires that it should be so considered.

The liability of railway and other corporations to exemplary damages for gross negligence is a well-settled question. Hopkins v. Atlantic & St. Lawrence R.R. Co., 36 N. H. 9; Taylor v. Railway Co., 48 id. 304, 318; Goddard v. Grand Trunk R.R. Co., 57 Me. 202 (also reported in Am. Law Reg., vol. x. p. 17); Redf. on Railw. 515 et seq.; Shearm. & Redf. on Neg., sect. 600; New Orleans, Jackson, & Great Northern R.R. Co. v. Albritton, 36 Miss. 242; Same v. Bailey, 40 id. 395; V. & J. R.R. Co. v. Patton, 31 id. 156; M. & C. R.R. Co. v. Whitfield, 44 id. 466; Louisville, Cinn., & Lex. R.R. Co. v. Mahony, 7 Bush (Ky.), 235; Atlantic & Gt. Western R.R. Co. v. Dunn, 19 Ohio St. 162; Pittsburgh & Ft. Wayne R.R. Co. v. Slusser, id. 157; 57 Penn. St. 339; Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co. v. Blocher, 27 Md. 277; Williamson v. The Western Stage Co., 24 Iowa, 171; Frick & Co. v. Coe, 4 G. Greene, 555; Chicago & Rock Island R.R. Co. v. McKean, 40 Ill. 218; C. R. I. & P. R.R. Co. v. Herring, 57 id. 59. See also Spicer v. C. & N. W. R.R. Co., 29 Wis. 580.

The right to recover exemplary damages has been expressly recognized by this court. Day v. Woodworth, 13 How. 363; Philadelphia and Reading R.R. Co. v. Derby, 14 How. 468.

In Varillat v. The New Orleans & Carollton R.R. Co., 10 La. Ann. 88, the court place stress upon the fact that there was no evidence to explain the cause of the collision, ...

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