Stewart v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 168 U.S. 445 (1897)

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Author: Justice Brewer

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Stewart v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 168 U.S. 445 (1897)

MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Court of Appeals was of opinion that the action could not be maintained under the statute of the District of Columbia, because that authorizes recovery only in case the injury causing death is done within the limits of the District, nor under the Maryland statute, because of the peculiar form of remedy prescribed therein; citing, in support of the latter contention, Pollard v. Bailey, 20 Wall. 520. A statute of Alabama made stockholders of a bank individually liable for its debts, and, according to the construction given to it by the supreme court of the state, the remedy provided was a suit in equity, whereas in that case, a single creditor had sued one of the stockholders in an action at law, and, in denying the right to maintain such action, this Court observed, page 526:

The individual liability of stockholders in a corporation for the payment of its debts is always a creature of statute. At common law, it does not exist. The statute which creates it may also declare the purposes of its creation, and provide for the manner of its enforcement. . . . The liability and the remedy were created by the same statute. This being so, the remedy provided is exclusive of all others. A general liability created by statute without a remedy may be enforced by an appropriate common law action. But where the provision for the liability is coupled with a provision for a special remedy, that remedy, and that alone, must be employed.

To like effect was cited Fourth National Bank v. Francklyn, 120 U.S. 747. The Court of Appeals was of opinion that the statute in Maryland not only created a statutory liability, but prescribed a particular remedy, and that no action could be maintained either in Maryland or elsewhere unless that special remedy was pursued.

Notwithstanding the ability with which the arguments in support of this conclusion are presented in the opinion of the Court of Appeals, we are unable to concur therein. A negligent act causing death is, in itself, a tort, and, were it not for the rule founded on the maxim, actio personalis moritur cum persona, damages therefor could have been recovered in an action at common law. The case differs in this important feature from those in which a penalty is imposed for an act, in itself not wrongful, in which a purely statutory delict is created. The purpose of the several statutes passed in the states in more or less conformity to what is known as "Lord Campbell’s Act" is to provide the means for recovering the damages caused by that which is essentially and in its nature a tort. Such statutes are not penal, but remedial, for the benefit of the persons injured by the death. An action to recover damages for a tort is not local, but transitory, and can, as a general rule, be maintained wherever the wrongdoer can be found. Dennick v. Railroad Company, 103 U.S. 11. It may well be that, where a purely statutory right is created, the special remedy provided by the statute for the enforcement of that right must be pursued; but where the statute simply takes away a common law obstacle to a recovery for an admitted tort, it would seem not unreasonable to hold that an action for that tort can be maintained in any state in which that common law obstacle has been removed. At least it has been held by this Court in repeated cases that an action for such a tort can be maintained

where the statute of the state in which the cause of action arose is not in substance inconsistent with the statutes or public policy of the state in which the right of action is sought to be enforced.

Texas & Pacific Railway v. Cox, 145 U.S. 593, 605. See also Dennick v. Railroad Company, 103 U.S. 11; Huntington v. Attrill, 146 U.S. 657; Northern Pacific Railroad v. Babcock, 154 U.S. 190.

What are the differences between the two statutes? As heretofore noticed, the substantial purpose of these various statutes is to do away with the obstacle to a recovery caused by the death of the party injured. Both statutes in the case at bar disclose that purpose. By each, the death of the party injured ceases to relieve the wrongdoer from liability for damages caused by the death, and this is its main purpose and effect. The two statutes differ as to the party in whose name the suit is to be brought. In Maryland, the plaintiff is the state; in this district, the personal representative of the deceased. But neither the state in the one case nor the personal representative in the other has any pecuniary interest in the recovery. Each is simply a nominal plaintiff. While in the District the nominal plaintiff is the personal representative of the deceased, the damages recovered do not become part of the assets of the estate, or liable for the debts of the deceased, but are distributed among certain of his heirs. By neither statute is there any thought of increasing the volume of the deceased’s estate, but in each it is the award to certain prescribed heirs of the damages resulting to them from the taking away of their relative.

For purposes of jurisdiction in the federal courts, regard is had to the real, rather than to the nominal, party. Brown v. Strode, 5 Cranch 303; McNutt v. Bland, 2 How. 9; State of Maryland for use of Markley v. Baldwin, 112 U.S. 490. See also Gaither v. Farmers’ & Mechanics’ Bank of Georgetown, 1 Pet. 37, 42, in which the issue submitted to the jury was, as stated, one between the bank to the use of Thomas Corcorran, plaintiff, and Gaither, the defendant, upon which the Court said:

This practice is familiar with the Maryland courts, and, when the action originates in that form, the cestui que use is regarded as the real party to the suit.

It is true those were actions on contract, and this is an action for a tort, but still in such an action it is evident that the real party in interest is not the nominal plaintiff, but the party for whose benefit the recovery is sought, and the courts of either jurisdiction will see that the damages awarded pass to such party.

Another difference is that, by the Maryland statute, the jury trying the cause apportion the damages awarded between the parties for whose benefit the action is brought, while by the statute of the District, the distribution is made according to the ordinary laws of distribution of a decedent’s estate. But by each, the important matter is the award of damages, and the manner of distribution is a minor consideration. Besides, in determining the amount of the recovery, the jury must necessarily consider the damages which each beneficiary has sustained by reason of the death. By neither statute is a fixed sum to be given as a penalty for the wrong, but in each the question is the amount of damages. It is true that the beneficiaries of such an action may not in every case be exactly the same under each statute, but the principal beneficiaries under each are the near relatives -- those most likely to be dependent on the party killed -- and the remote relatives can seldom, if ever, be regarded as suffering loss from the death.

We cannot think that these differences are sufficient to render the statute of Maryland in substance inconsistent with the statute or public policy of the District of Columbia, and so, within the rule heretofore announced in this Court, it must be held that the plaintiff was entitled to maintain this action in the courts of the District for the benefit of the persons designated in the statute of Maryland. The judgment will be

Reversed, and the case remanded for a trial upon the merits.

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Chicago: Brewer, "Brewer, J., Lead Opinion," Stewart v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 168 U.S. 445 (1897) in 168 U.S. 445 168 U.S. 448–168 U.S. 450. Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DCL9MHR48RRAX9P.

MLA: Brewer. "Brewer, J., Lead Opinion." Stewart v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 168 U.S. 445 (1897), in 168 U.S. 445, pp. 168 U.S. 448–168 U.S. 450. Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DCL9MHR48RRAX9P.

Harvard: Brewer, 'Brewer, J., Lead Opinion' in Stewart v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 168 U.S. 445 (1897). cited in 1897, 168 U.S. 445, pp.168 U.S. 448–168 U.S. 450. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DCL9MHR48RRAX9P.