Norfolk & Western Ry. Co. v. Holbrook, 235 U.S. 625 (1915)

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Author: Justice McReynolds

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Norfolk & Western Ry. Co. v. Holbrook, 235 U.S. 625 (1915)

MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

W. T. Holbrook, a bridge carpenter, aged thirty-eight, and employed by plaintiff in error at a wage of $2.75 per day, was killed by a passing train while at his work in McDowell County, West Virginia, January 4, 1913. He left a widow, thirty-two years old, and five children of one, four, seven, eleven, and fourteen years. The widow qualified as administratrix and instituted this suit under the Employers’ Liability Act, approved April 22, 1908, 35 Stat. 65, c. 149, in behalf of herself and children in the United States District Court, Western District of Virginia. She charged that the accident resulted from negligence of agents and employees of the railway company, and at the trial introduced evidence tending to establish this fact. The jury returned a verdict for $25,000 in her favor; judgment thereon was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals (215 F. 687), and the cause was brought here.

The only assignment of error now relied upon goes to a single sentence in instruction No. 5, wherein comparison is made between the pecuniary injuries of a widow and infant children and those of adults or mere next of kin. At the instance of the administratrix, the court told the jury (instruction No. 4) that, if Holbrook’s own negligence contributed proximately to his death, only proportionate damages could be recovered, and then gave instruction No. 5, in the following words:

The court further instructs the jury that, if they believe from the evidence that plaintiff is entitled to recover, then the amount of her damages is, subject to diminution, if any, as set out in instruction No. 4, to be measured by the pecuniary injury suffered by the widow and infant children as the direct result of the death of the husband and father, it not being permissible for the jury to go beyond the pecuniary loss and give damages for the loss of the love of the husband or father by wife or children, or to compensate them for their grief or sorrow or mental anguish for his death, or other purely sentimental injury or loss.

However, the court instructs you that, where the persons suffering injury are the dependent widow and infant children of a deceased husband and father, the pecuniary injury suffered would be much greater than where the beneficiaries were all adults or dependents who were mere next of kin, so that the relation existing between deceased and the infant beneficiaries prior to his death is a factor in fixing the amount of the merely pecuniary damages. Bearing the above principles in mind, the jury should assess such damages, not exceeding $40,000, the amount claimed in the declaration, as shall fully compensate the widow and children for all pecuniary loss, as hereinafter explained, suffered by them as the direct result of the death of the husband and father, and in doing so the jury should consider:

(1) What the earning capacity of deceased has been prior to and was at the time of his death, and what it probably might have been in the future had he not been killed at the same wages he was receiving at the time of his death, as shown by the evidence; and, in estimating the probable earnings of decedent, and what his family might have realized from them during his future life had he not been killed, and, in estimating the length of his probable life had he not been killed, it will be the duty of the jury to consider his age, health, habits, industry, intelligence, character, and expectancy of life, as shown by the evidence introduced before you.

(2) The jury will also take into consideration the care, attention, instruction, training, advice, and guidance which one of decedent’s disposition, character, habits, intelligence, and devotion to his parental duties, or indifference thereto, as shown by the evidence, would reasonably be expected to give to his infant children during their minority, and the pecuniary benefit therefrom to said children, and include the pecuniary value of the same in the damages assessed.

The railway company duly excepted because

the court tells the jury that the widow and infant children of decedent are entitled to larger damages than would be the case of persons suing who were more distantly related.

The exception was overruled, and this action is now relied on as material error requiring a reversal.

Under the Employers’ Liability Act, where death is instantaneous, the beneficiaries can recover their pecuniary loss and nothing more; but the relationship between them and the deceased is a proper circumstance for consideration in computing the same. The elements which make up the total damage resulting to a minor child from a parent’s death may be materially different from those demanding examination where the beneficiary is a spouse or collateral dependent relative; but in every instance, the award must be based upon money values, the amount of which can be ascertained only upon a view of the peculiar facts presented. Michigan Central Railroad v. Vreeland, 227 U.S. 59, 68, 72-73; American Railroad of Porto Rico v. Didricksen, 227 U.S. 145, 149; Gulf, Colorado &c. Ry. v. McGinnis, 228 U.S. 173, 175-176; North Carolina Railroad v. Zachary, 232 U.S. 248, 256-257.

In the present case, there was testimony concerning the personal qualities of the deceased and the interest which he took in his family. It was proper, therefore, to charge that the jury might take into consideration the care, attention, instruction, training, advice, and guidance which the evidence showed he reasonably might have been expected to give his children during their minority, and to include the pecuniary value thereof in the damages assessed. But there was nothing -- indeed, there could be nothing -- to show the hypothetic injury which might have befallen some unidentified adult beneficiary or dependent next of kin. The ascertained circumstances must govern in every case. There was no occasion to compare the rights of the actual beneficiaries with those of supposed dependents, and we think the trial court plainly erred when it declared that, where the persons suffering injury are the dependent widow and infant children of a deceased husband and father the pecuniary injury suffered would be much greater than where the beneficiaries were adults or dependents who were mere next of kin. This gave the jury occasion for indefinite speculation and rather invited a consideration of elements wholly irrelevant to the true problem presented -- to indulge in conjecture instead of weighing established facts. Insurance Co. v. Baring, 20 Wall. 159, 161.

The facts brought out during the course of the trial were adequate to constitute a strong appeal to the sympathy naturally engendered in the minds of jurors by the misfortunes of a widow and her dependent children. In such circumstances, it was especially important that the charge should be free from anything which they might construe as a permission to go outside of the evidence. It is the duty of the court, in its relation to the jury, to protect the parties from unjust verdicts arising from impulse, passion, or prejudice, or from any other violation of lawful rights. Pleasants v. Fant, 22 Wall. 116, 121.

Considering the whole record, we feel obliged to conclude that the probable result of the indicated language in instruction No. 5 was materially to prejudice the rights of the railway company. The judgment of the circuit court of appeals is accordingly reversed, and the cause remanded to the District Court for the Western District of Virginia for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.

Judgment reversed.

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Chicago: McReynolds, "McReynolds, J., Lead Opinion," Norfolk & Western Ry. Co. v. Holbrook, 235 U.S. 625 (1915) in 235 U.S. 625 235 U.S. 627–235 U.S. 630. Original Sources, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DJTE59ULQPSUQLR.

MLA: McReynolds. "McReynolds, J., Lead Opinion." Norfolk & Western Ry. Co. v. Holbrook, 235 U.S. 625 (1915), in 235 U.S. 625, pp. 235 U.S. 627–235 U.S. 630. Original Sources. 23 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DJTE59ULQPSUQLR.

Harvard: McReynolds, 'McReynolds, J., Lead Opinion' in Norfolk & Western Ry. Co. v. Holbrook, 235 U.S. 625 (1915). cited in 1915, 235 U.S. 625, pp.235 U.S. 627–235 U.S. 630. Original Sources, retrieved 23 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DJTE59ULQPSUQLR.