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Columbia & Puget Sound R. Co. v. Hawthorne, 144 U.S. 202 (1892)

Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad Company v. Hawthorne

No. 240

Argued March 24, 1892

Decided April 4, 1892

144 U.S. 202


The refusal to direct a verdict for the defendant at the close of the plaintiffs evidence, and when the defendant has not rested his case, cannot be assigned for error.

In an action for injuries caused by a machine alleged to be negligently constructed, a subsequent alteration or repair of the machine by the defendant is not competent evidence of negligence in its original construction.

This was an action brought in a district court of the Territory of Washington against a corporation owning a saw-mill, by a man employed in operating a machine therein, called a "trimmer," to recover damages for the defendant's negligence in providing an unsafe and defective machine, whereby one of the pulleys, over which ran the belt transmitting power to the saw, fell upon and injured the plaintiff. The defendant denied any negligence on its part, and averred negligence on the part of the plaintiff.

At the trial, the plaintiff introduced evidence tending to show that the pulley, weighing about fifty pounds, revolved around a stationary shaft made of gas pipe with nothing to

Page 144 U. S. 203

hold the pulley on but a common cap or nut screwed on the end of the pipe, and its thread running in the same way as the pulley, and liable to be unscrewed by the working of the pulley; that the nut became unscrewed, and came off, so that the pulley fell upon and greatly injured the plaintiff, and that if the nut had been properly put on, with a bolt through the shaft, the accident could not have happened.

The plaintiff's counsel asked a witness whether there had been any change in the machinery since the accident. Thereupon the following colloquy took place:

"Defendant's counsel: We object to that. The rule is well understood, and as your honor has already given it in other cases, that a person is not bound to furnish the best known machinery, but to furnish machinery reasonably safe. It is not a question as to what we have done with the machinery in the last few years or months since the accident occurred, but what was the condition then."

"The Court: The rule is quite well settled, I think, that where an accident occurs through defective machinery or defective fixtures or the machine itself, if that is shown to be true, then a change, repair, or substitution of something else for the defective machinery is admissible as showing or tending to show the fact. I think that is quite well settled."

"Defendant's counsel: I thoroughly concur with the court as to the rule."

"Plaintiff's counsel: We propose to show changes."

"The Court: I think it is admissible."

"Defendant's counsel. We will save an exception."

"The Court: Exception allowed."

The witness then answered that there had been changes since the accident, and that they consisted in putting a rod through the shaft, and gammon nuts on the end of the rod to keep the pulleys on, and in putting up some planks underneath the pulleys to keep them from falling down. To the admission of the evidence of each of these changes an exception was taken by the defendant and allowed by the judge.

At the close of all the evidence for the plaintiff (which it is unnecessary to state) the defendant moved "for a judgment

Page 144 U. S. 204

of nonsuit, on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to prove a sufficient cause for the jury," and an exception to the overruling of this motion was taken by the defendant and allowed by the court.

The defendant then introduced evidence, and the case was argued by counsel, and submitted by the court to the jury, who returned a verdict of $10,000 for the plaintiff, upon which judgment was rendered. The defendant appealed to the supreme court of the territory, which affirmed the judgment. 3 Wash.Terr. 353. The defendant sued out this writ of error.

Page 144 U. S. 205

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