Annotate this Case

1914 OK 303
141 P. 785
42 Okla. 394
Case Number: 3263
Decided: 06/23/1914
Supreme Court of Oklahoma

ST. LOUIS & S. F. R. CO.


¶0 1. NEGLIGENCE--Proximate Cause--Question for Jury. In a suit for personal injuries the question of whether or not defendant's negligence is the proximate cause of the injury sustained should be left to the jury, where the evidence is conflicting, or where men of ordinary intelligence might differ as to the effect of the evidence on the point.
2.SAME--Circumstantial Evidence. The question of proximate cause may be determined from circumstantial evidence.

Error from District Court, Oklahoma County; Geo. W. Clark, Judge.

Action by Myrtle Darnell, administratrix, against the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad Company. Judgment for plaintiff, and defendant brings error. Affirmed. Action by G. H. McKenney against Arch Carpenter and thirty-four others. Judgment sustaining demurrer to petition, and plaintiff brings error. Affirmed.

W. F. Evans, R. A. Kleinschmidt, and J. H. Grant, for plaintiff in error
V. E. McInnis, A. F. Moss, J, W. Hassell, and M. E. Turner, for defendant in error.Mason & Rogers, for plaintiff in error
W. R. Bleakmore, for defendants in error


¶1 On or about April 5, 1910, W. C. Darnell, while in the performance of his duty, as head brakeman, fell from defendant's train and was killed at a point about one mile north of Scullin, Okla. The said train was being run from Francis, Okla., to Sherman, in the state of Texas, and was engaged in interstate business.

¶2 This suit is brought by Myrtle Darnell, his widow, in her capacity as administratrix of the estate of her deceased husband. It is claimed that the deceased lost his life because of the negligence of the defendant railroad, and the allegations of negligence are, in substance, as follows:

"Plaintiff further shows that on said date, and for a long time prior thereto, the defendant had allowed its track at points between Hickory and Scullin * * * to become rough and uneven, with swags, depressions, and low joints in its rails, and that the ties to which the rails of said track were attached were old and rotten, defective, and insufficient to hold said rails, and that said track was defectively, insufficiently, and negligently ballasted, and at various points was unballasted so that the ties holding said rails, by reason of their rotten, defective, and negligent condition, and by reason of said track being negligently ballasted, had slipped and would slip out of alignment; and plaintiff further shows that by reason of such negligent construction of said railroad bed, ties, and rails, said track had become rough, uneven, out of alignment, and with low points and depressions, at a point halfway between milepost 570 and said defendant's right of way and defendant's whistling post, as defendant's line approached Scullin from the north; * * * that said negligent condition of the defendant's railroad bed, ties, and track negligently existed on April 5, 1910, at the time of the accident hereinafter set out, and had so existed for a long time prior thereto, and that defendant knew of said negligent condition, or, by the exercise of ordinary care, could have known it, and could have remedied the same, and thereby have prevented the accident and injury hereinafter set out."

¶3 The above allegation is followed by a general averment that deceased was in the line of his duty, and that it was necessary to pass along the top of the cars constituting the train, and from one car to another, in order to perform his duty and carry out his instructions, and then follows with the following allegation:

"Plaintiff further shows that as said train passed along over defendant's line, as aforesaid, as it approached Scullin and as it passed along toward defendant's milepost 570 and its whistling post as it approached the station of Scullin from the north, the said W. C. Darnell, without negligence on his part, was passing over and along the top of said train as aforesaid; that said train was being negligently operated at a high and excessive rate of speed over said rough and uneven track, to wit, at the rate of 35 miles per hour; that W. C. Darnell was passing toward the head end of said train, and was in the act of climbing, stepping across from one car to another; * * * that, as said Darnell attempted to cross over, said train, while being operated by the agent, servants, and employees of the defendant, ran over said rough track, and into and over said depressions, and, by reason of said excessive speed and by reason of said rough, uneven, and negligently constructed railroad bed, track, and ties, the said Darnell was thrown from said train, and was, without his negligence, and through the negligence of the defendant, its agents, servants, and employees, immediately and instantly killed."

¶4 The defendant, for answer, filed a general denial and set up the defense of contributory negligence and assumption of risk.

¶5 The plaintiff filed a general denial for a reply. At a trial on the issues thus formed the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and the defendant brings the case here as plaintiff in error, and argues three propositions: (1) That the evidence fails to support the verdict; (2) the refusal of competent evidence; and (3) the admission of incompetent evidence.

¶6 The instructions of the court, it will be noted at the outset, are not challenged by either party, and we are therefore justified in assuming that the jury was correctly instructed on the various phases of law applicable and involved in the case.

¶7 From a careful reading of the briefs it is apparent that the defendant relies for a reversal upon the first point mentioned above; that is, that the evidence does not support the verdict. And this point is still further narrowed to the precise claim that the failure of proof consists in that it does not show that defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of plaintiff's death. It is not contended, and the contention could not be successfully maintained under the evidence, that defendant was not negligent in the maintenance of its railroad at the place where the injury occurred. There is an abundance of evidence that in this respect the defendant was negligent. So our inquiry is reduced to this: Is there a causal connection between defendant's negligence and Darnell's death? If there is not, the verdict is wrong, for it has been often held that, although the defendant may be guilty of negligence, yet to make it liable to a person for injuries received, it must be further shown that the negligence had a causal connection with the injury; that is, that it was the proximate cause of the injury. St. L. & S. F. R. Co. v. Hess, 34 Okla. 615, 126 P. 760, and cases cited.

¶8 With this situation of the facts and the law in mind, we have studied the evidence quite carefully, and are convinced that there is evidence tending to show that defendant's negligence was the underlying cause of the injury; that is to say, that there is evidence which, taken with the rational inferences to be drawn from it, tends to show that but for the condition in which defendant had permitted its track to get plaintiff would not have fallen from the train and thus lost his life. If there was such evidence before the jury, then its weight and effect was to be determined by them. The question of proximate cause is usually to be determined by the jury. Petroleum Iron Works Co. v. Wantland, 28 Okla. 481, 114 P. 717.

¶9 Plaintiff's evidence shows that at the point of the injury, and for a distance of a few hundred feet behind the place where the brakeman fell to his death, the roadbed was in a very bad condition. There were low joints on each side of the track scattered along. Many ties were so rotten that a witness says he could have torn loose and gathered up with his hands a wagon load of fragments from ties in service under the rails. A cracker box full of rotten ends and pieces, thus gathered, are in evidence. There is evidence that ties had rotted from under the rails so that they would sink in places as the train passed over them, and in pressing down on the loose ties, mud and slush would be forced up over the ties and rail. Darnell fell to his death evidently just as the train was leaving this rough and uneven track. His body was a few yards south of where the bad condition stopped, but there is evidence that the body dragged. The bad condition at this point had been recognized by defendant, as the train carried orders not to exceed fifteen miles an hour. The conductor in charge admits the probability that the train at this point was exceeding its speed orders. He says the train was going fifteen to eighteen miles an hour. It would not be fair or reasonable to infer, considering his relations to defendant, and more particularly to the accident, that he overestimated the speed. About the time the train ran onto this piece of bad track a witness was driving along in a buggy, along the side of the right of way in the same direction the train was going. He was, in a sense, an eyewitness to the injury. It was after dark, and he could not see all that happened, and could not testify as to the exact position of deceased at the moment of, or the movement resulting in, the false step that caused him to fall between the cars. The train came up behind witness, and appeared from its noise to be running smoothly until it struck this rough place. As the train passed witness saw a man walking on top towards the engine. He could see the man's bulk and his lantern, and when the train was a few car lengths past him he saw the lantern fall. Witness drove on opposite where the lantern fell, and stopped and went onto the track, and, as he expected, found the deceased lying mostly between the rails dead, and his body cut to pieces. We set out some of the testimony of this witness brought out on cross-examination:

"Q. And you just judged that he was at the end of the car from the fact that he fell? A. Yes, sir; that's my judgment. It looked to me like he was trying to make a leap from one car to another. Q. As he proceeded along the train, did you notice any difference in the elevation of his lantern? A. No, sir; I didn't notice until he went to fall, any more than it looked like he was in a sort of a hurry going down the car. Q. This noise that you heard, is that a noise ordinarily made by a freight train as it goes down the road? A. Not altogether; just when it struck the bad places. Q. Didn't you say on your direct examination that you thought from the noise some of the trucks were off the track? A. Yes, sir; I thought maybe some of the trucks had jumped off from the noise. From the rocking disposition, I have seen them jump off of the track very often * * * Q. Now, when did you notice this noise with reference to the time you saw the lantern fall? A. Well, it was right about that time; just a little before the lantern fell it was making this racket. Q. At the time the lantern fell it was not making the racket? A. No; it was still making the racket, but soon got over that. Q. And this racket was heard about simultaneously with the falling of the lantern? A. Yes, sir; just a little bit before. Q. And before that time it had been running smoothly you said? A. When it came up it looked like it was running pretty smooth. Q. Where did you stop with reference to the point where you saw the lantern go down? A. I stopped right about where I thought the lantern fell. Q. Did you find the lantern? A. No, sir; I never paid no attention; I just looked and stepped up and down the track and saw the man lying there. I looked up the track first and then down the track, and saw a small bulk there, and walked down to it. Q. Was the man dead when you reached him? A. Yes, sir; I judged he was dead. I didn't go right up to him."

¶10 Now, taking the condition detailed, and of course we have not brought out here all the little points and bits of evidence bearing on it, what impression is left on the ordinary mind as to why the brakeman fell between the cars? Did he simply miscalculate his step or miss his footing, uninfluenced by the unusual rocking, jolting, and swaying of the train? Or did this unusual condition cause the misstep or false movement which precipitated him to his death? He was an experienced and skilled brakeman. More than one letter from his superintendent testifies as to his thoughtfulness and care. It seems to us that the facts and circumstances shown tend to convince the mind, and this is the office and purpose of proof, that the great probabilities are that the brakeman lost his balance, his footing, or made the false movement which caused the fall, because of the unusual and unnecessary movement of the train at the time. If so, this unusual and unnecessary movement was caused by the condition of the track. The condition of the track was negligence.

¶11 It is true that in determining the precise point of "proximate cause" we must depend on the circumstances; but this can be shown by circumstantial evidence. Coalgate Co. v. Hurst, 25 Okla. 588, 107 P. 657; St. L. & S. F. R. Co. v. Rushing, 31 Okla. 231, 120 P. 973; C., R. I. & P. Ry. Co. v. Ashlock, 36 Okla. 706, 129 P. 726; Petroleum Co. v. Wantland, 28 Okla. 481, 114 P. 717.

¶12 In the Rushing case, supra, this court said:

"A plaintiff in a civil case is not required to prove his case beyond a doubt. All that the plaintiff upon this branch of the case was required to do is to make it appear to be more probable that the injury came in whole or in part from the defendant's negligence than from any other cause."

¶13 It is argued that to reach this conclusion we must build inference upon inference, and that in the end it is mere speculation. We do not think so. We think the evidence shows a negligent condition in the track; that the train in going over this place rocked and was moving in an unusual and unnecessary manner, because of the negligent condition in the track. These being proven facts, it is only necessary to draw inferences or conclusions from them as to what caused the fall. The jury drew the conclusion, or inference of fact, from the circumstances shown, that the negligence of the company in not properly maintaining its roadbed, coupled, perhaps, with the negligent speed of the train in passing over this particularly bad place, was the underlying, responsible, and efficient cause of the brakeman's fall, and therefore of his loss of life. There is evidence sufficient to sustain this view without invading the realm of mere guesswork or speculation, and appellant's contention must be overruled.

¶14 2. A number of objections are presented in the brief, relative to the admission and rejection of evidence. One objection goes to the admission in evidence of the box of fragments of the rotten ties pulled off by hand at the place of injury. No authorities are cited to sustain the objection. The charge in this case was that the roadbed was in a dangerous condition, and that because of the rotten and worn out ties upon which the rails rested. The evidence shows that some of the ties were utterly worn out, rotten, and worthless; and the pieces shown the jury were pulled off these ties, outside the rail, as the witness passed along over this place on the track. The witness said he could have torn off much more had he cared to. We think the evidence tended to prove the charge in the petition, and can see no error in allowing this evidence. The following objection is taken from appellant's brief:

"Q. From your experience as a section man, please state whether or not a low joint of one-half inch caused by ties is considered safe or dangerous by railroad men for the operation of trains over it? A. Why, I couldn't say how section men would call, because you can find low joints all the way along in some places. A real bad low joint, where they find one of those, as a general thing they fix it up.

"Mr. Grant: The defendant moves to strike out all of the testimony of this witness relating to the condition of this track, for the reason that this answer shows conclusively that he has no knowledge of what is a good track and what is a bad track, and says that he does not know what a section man would call a safe track.

¶15 Opinion by RITTENHOUSE, C. This is an action brought in the district court of Carter county, Okla., by G. H. McKenney, plaintiff in error, against Arch Carpenter and thirty-four others, defendants in error, for damages, caused by the publication in the Daily Ardmoreite, in its Sunday issue of March 19, 1911, of a certain petition, asking for the removal of the plaintiff in error as meat and food inspector of the city of Ardmore, and stating in said petition that:

"Believing in the principles taught by the immortal Jefferson, that of equal rights to all and special privileges to none, and that the majority should rule, we the undersigned business men hereby offer this petition to the honorable mayor and board of commissioners of the city of Ardmore as our side of the case of the pure food inspector for the city of Ardmore. We want to state again that we want to be fair; that we have always contended that the present incumbent is not a satisfactory person to hold this position, as his business dealings and principles have been such that they are far from satisfactory to an honest and fair-minded business man who believes in a square deal. But, if it is a fact, as the mayor is said to have stated, that no other man could be found here to take the place, and he must import a man, let him import one that is a man in every sense of the word; a man who will give us a square deal in his work as pure food inspector and also in his business dealings. We want only what is right and have no suggestions to make in regard to the man that shall be given his place; we have no choice as to who shall have this appointment, but we do ask that the present officer be dismissed and that the man who secures this place be a man."

¶16 The action was filed on June 24, 1911, alleging:

"That heretofore and upon the 19th day of March, A. D. 1911, the defendants and each of them, having theretofore subscribed their names to a certain instrument, which said instrument is hereby specially pleaded and made a part of this complaint, a printed copy of which is hereto attached as 'Exhibit A' to this complaint, caused such instrument to be published in the Daily Ardmoreite in its Sunday issue thereof, on Sunday, March 19, 1911, said Daily Ardmoreite being a paper of wide circulation and going into all parts of the state of Oklahoma, and perhaps many other states, and especially within the city of Ardmore, Okla., where this plaintiff resided and where he was engaged in the practice of his profession and the duties devolving upon him as city meat and food inspector; and said defendants and each of them by their signatures to said instrument, and by causing said article to be published in said paper of general circulation, did willfully and maliciously utter and cause to be published and circulated concerning this plaintiff the slanderous, false, malicious, scandalous, and defamatory words and statements as set forth in Exhibit A as above pleaded; that said words and statements as aforesaid, so maliciously and slanderously caused to be uttered and published concerning the plaintiff by said defendants, tended to blacken and injure the honesty, integrity, morality, and reputation of said plaintiff, and did thereby expose him to public contempt and ridicule and to injure and damage the reputation of the said plaintiff."

"Plaintiff further states that the common acceptance of said words so published and uttered by the defendants were slanderous and libelous, and that said words and statements so published and uttered by the defendants were and are utterly false, malicious, and slanderous."

"Plaintiff states that by reason of the acts of the defendants aforesaid in and about the uttering and publishing of the said false, malicious, and slanderous words and statements as aforesaid, the plaintiff was and is greatly and permanently injured and damaged in his good name and reputation, and was and is exposed to public contempt, hatred, and ridicule, and has been caused to resign his position with the said city of Ardmore, and has been damaged in his business and reputation in the amount of $ 10,000."

¶17 There is no attempt in this petition to set forth which of the several expressions contained in the article published are libelous. We have carefully examined the expressions separately, and collectively, and, giving to them their most natural and obvious meaning, we cannot construe them to be libelous per se. It is true that the defendants expressed their dissatisfaction as to the services of the plaintiff as meat and food inspector of the city of Ardmore, and suggested to the mayor of said city that they wanted a man appointed who possessed certain qualifications. It may be that the several expressions as contained in this article have a latent and injurious meaning when applied to the plaintiff, and, if so, he should have specifically alleged that said article by innuendo bears a libelous meaning when applied to him; this was not done, and we cannot say that the plaintiff has properly alleged wherein he was exposed to public hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or deprived of public confidence, or injured in his reputation. This article not being libelous per se, and the petition not alleging a special damage, the same does not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action for damages on the ground of libel.

¶18 The demurrer was therefore properly sustained by the trial court, as it is always a question for the court to determine as a matter of law whether or not the article was libelous per se. Hunt v. Bennett, 19 N.Y. 173; Pittock v. O'Niell, 63 Pa. 253, 3 Am. Rep. 544; Woodruff v. Bradstreet, 116 N.Y. 217, 22 N.E. 354, 5 L.R.A. 555; Stewart v. Minnesota Tribune Co., 40 Minn. 101, 41 N.W. 457, 12 Am. St. Rep. 696; Bodine v. Times Journal Pub. Co., 26 Okla. 135, 110 P. 1096, 31 L.R.A. (N. S.) 147; Newell on Slander & Libel (2d Ed.) sec 49.

¶19 It is not every written charge against an individual that will sustain a suit for damages, and, where the article itself is not libelous per se, there must be an allegation of special damages, before a recovery can be had. The plaintiff has not attempted to support this action by any allegation of a special damage, but relies solely upon an allegation of general damages. It is apparent, from an examination of the petition, that there is a total failure to show that the plaintiff has suffered special damages following as the necessary, natural, and proximate consequence of the publication complained of. It is insufficient to allege generally that the plaintiff "was and is greatly and permanently injured and damaged in his good name and reputation and was and is exposed to public contempt, hatred, and ridicule and has been caused to resign his position with the said city of Ardmore and has been damaged in his business and reputation in the amount of $ 10,000," without showing by proper averment how the special damages were occasioned. Sherman Machine Co. v. Dun, 28 Okla. 447, 114 P. 617; Geisler v. Brown, 6 Neb. 254; Reporters' Association of America v. Sun Printing & Pub. Ass'n, 186 N.Y. 437, 79 N.E. 710; Woodruff v. Bradstreet Co., 116 N.Y. 217, 22 N.E. 354, 5 L.R.A. 555; Betsy Cook v. Miranda Cook, 100 Mass. 194; Stewart v. Minnesota Tribune Co., 40 Minn. 101, 41 N.W. 457, 12 Am. St.Rep. 696; Newell on Slander & Libel, sec. 49 et seq.

¶20 This cause should therefore be affirmed.

¶21 By the Court: It is so ordered.

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