Kellegherv.Forty-Second St. R. Co.

Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First DepartmentDec 1, 1900
56 App. Div. 322 (N.Y. App. Div. 1900)
56 App. Div. 32267 N.Y.S. 767

December Term, 1900.

Eugene Treadwell, for the appellant.

Charles Green Smith, for the respondent.



O'BRIEN, J.:

Two questions are principally urged upon our attention upon this appeal; the first relating to the weight of evidence and the second to an error claimed to have been committed by the learned trial judge in his charge to the jury.

Although it here appears that the number of witnesses produced by the defendant exceeds those of the plaintiff, that is not necessarily a controlling factor in determining the preponderance of evidence. The appearance, the manner of testifying, the attitude of a witness, whether friendly or unfriendly, as well as the point of view from which he saw the accident, are, with other things, to be considered by the jury in determining the weight or credibility to be given to his testimony. And the verdict of a jury should not be disturbed except in a case where it clearly appears that the conclusion reached is against the weight of evidence. Here, though the number of witnesses for defendant is greater, we have, on the part of the plaintiff, her own positive statement corroborated by the equally positive evidence of a woman who was with her and who was in a position to see and know just how the accident happened.

On the other hand, the defendant's witnesses are not in entire accord as to the place where or the manner in which the accident happened. Some, for instance, say that they saw the plaintiff as the car approached her and before it stopped, while others had their attention directed to her only after she had attempted to board the car. One witness stated she had got on the car and between the seats, whilst another says she remained standing on the footboard, the car being crowded. We cannot conclude, as matter of law, that such evidence, though given by a greater number of persons, outweighs that of two witnesses whose version of the accident is neither improbable, unreasonable nor inconsistent.

With respect to the charge, were it not for an expression or characterization as to the act of the conductor in blowing his whistle to start the car while the plaintiff was boarding it, no fault is or could be found with it. Taken as a whole, it fairly and clearly summarized the facts and stated the law bearing upon the questions of defendant's liability. After saying that the burden was upon the plaintiff to establish by a fair preponderance of evidence her freedom from negligence and the negligence of the defendant, the learned trial judge, in speaking of the act of the conductor referred to, said that "was a negligent act and such an act as may warrant a cause of action on behalf of the plaintiff. It is the claim of the plaintiff that, before she was able to get fairly onto the car, the car suddenly started — threw her off. If that is the fact, if that is the way it happened, if before she had got upon the car, and while still upon the step, the conductor blew the whistle, and the car suddenly started, and by that sudden movement of the car she was thrown from the car, that is an act of negligence, I repeat, on the part of the defendant's servant, and, every other element necessary to the plaintiff's recovery being established, it is sufficient to call for a verdict in behalf of the plaintiff."

Considering this language in connection with what was said in other parts of the charge, it is reasonably certain that the jury was not misled into regarding it as a statement that the act of the conductor so characterized was negligence as matter of law which rendered the defendant liable, but that it was evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer that defendant was negligent. Thus, the characterization that it was a negligent act was followed, as will be noticed, by the statement "such an act as may warrant a cause of action on behalf of the plaintiff," and a fair reading of the words following, which we have quoted, justifies a similar construction.

It will be noticed that the trial judge did not take away from the jury the right to determine the facts, and even if we should construe the language — as contended for by the appellant — as a statement by the court that upon such facts being found, the act of the conductor as matter of law was negligent, it remains to be determined how far such a statement would be error. The rule is, that where different inferences may be drawn from the facts, it is the province of the jury, and not of the court, to draw them. ( Morrissey v. Westchester Electric R. Co., 18 App. Div. 67; Salt Springs Nat. Bank v. Sloan, 135 N.Y. 371; Dolan v. Delaware Hudson Canal Co., 71 id. 285.) In the Morrissey Case ( supra), where the court stated that if the jury found that the accident occurred, as the plaintiff testified it did, the defendant was guilty of negligence, it was held that such a direction was error "unless the adoption of his testimony as true would exclude all inferences to the contrary." This, as well as the other cases cited, supports the rule that the facts are to be found by the jury, and it is only where the facts so found will justify but a single inference that the court is warranted in directing the jury as matter of law to draw such inference. Here the court did not go to the extent of charging that if they believed the plaintiff, then, as matter of law, the defendant was guilty of negligence; but had the court so charged, we are not prepared to hold that it would have been error. On the contrary, it was held in Kleiner v. Third Avenue R.R. Co. ( 162 N.Y. 193), as stated in the syllabus, "It is not error for the trial court to charge, in such an action, that if the jury believe that the accident happened in the manner described by the defendant's witnesses, their verdict must be for the defendant, and if they believe it occurred in the manner described by the plaintiff and her witnesses, she is entitled to recover, since it leaves to the jury the determination of all the facts;" and it was said in the opinion, referring to the case of Dolan v. Delaware Hudson Canal Co. ( supra), "that case and the other decisions cited are clearly distinguishable from the case at bar. In those cases the request to charge referred to the testimony of a witness, and then the court was asked to charge that if the jury believed that witness, they must find in a certain way or that a certain legal conclusion would follow. Here that was not the request or charge, but it was that, if the jury believed the accident occurred in the manner described by her witnesses, then the plaintiff was entitled to recover, which was equivalent to charging that if the facts claimed by her were established and found by the jury, she was entitled to a verdict. This involved a determination by the jury whether they would believe the evidence of the plaintiff's witnesses or that of the witnesses for the defendant wherever there was a conflict."

In the case at bar the plaintiff testified that after stopping the car and while in the act of getting on and before she had reached a place of safety, the conductor blew the whistle, and, in starting the car, threw her off. It is suggested that the inference of defendant's negligence, as matter of law, would not arise from such facts if proved, because it might be that the conductor did not see her or did not know of her position on the car when he blew his whistle.

Regard being had, however, to the rights of a person who, after the car has stopped, is attempting to board it, the obligation is on the conductor to see to it that such person has secured a reasonably safe foothold or position on the car before the signal to start is given. If we take the plaintiff's statement of what the conductor here did as true, his act was certainly a negligent one, for the consequences of which, unless it was refuted, explained or justified, the defendant would be liable. It is unnecessary, however, for us to go to this length for the reason that we think the question which the appellant seeks to raise is not presented by the record, our conclusion being that a fair inference from the whole charge is that the court left the facts to be found, and the inferences therefrom to be drawn, to the jury, and that from the language employed, they could not have been misled or have received an erroneous impression of what was their duty and their province in passing upon the question of defendant's liability. Although it is well in negligence cases to avoid characterizing as negligent the act or conduct of parties or witnesses, we do not think that what was here said by the trial judge was such error as would justify a reversal.

The judgment and order accordingly should be affirmed, with costs.

RUMSEY and PATTERSON, JJ., concurred; VAN BRUNT, P.J., and McLAUGHLIN, J., dissented.


I am unable to concur in the opinion of Mr. Justice O'BRIEN.

The court, in charging the jury, said: "In this particular case the circumstances testified to by the various witnesses are of such a character that I may safely say to you that if you believe the witnesses called by the plaintiff, who have testified to the circumstances under which the accident happened, it must be said that the act of the conductor was a negligent act and such an act as may warrant a cause of action on behalf of the plaintiff."

The defendant's counsel excepted to this portion of the charge, and it seems to me that the exception was well taken. By this instruction the jury were, in substance, told that if they believed the testimony of the plaintiff and her witnesses, the defendant was guilty of negligence and they could render a verdict for the plaintiff. This clearly was error, "unless the adoption of his testimony as true would exclude all inferences to the contrary of such imputation." ( Morrissey v. Westchester Electric R. Co., 18 App. Div. 67; Salt Springs Nat. Bank v. Sloan, 135 N.Y. 371.) The rule laid down in the Sloan case is that, "If the uncontradicted evidence show a case where different inferences might be drawn from undisputed facts as to the existence or non-existence of negligence, it has been the law for many years that such inferences are to be drawn by the jury under proper instructions from the court."

The negligence of the defendant, as alleged in the complaint, is that the plaintiff attempted to become a passenger on one of defendant's cars, and while the "car was standing still," and she was in the act of entering the car, it was suddenly started without warning to her, by reason whereof she was thrown to the ground and injured. On the trial she testified, "I went to get on the car, and I had one foot up to get to the car when he blew the whistle and then the car started and it jerked, and I swung off and I fell on my left hand." She also testified, "I was on the step and I was going into the car" when it started. "My left hand had hold of the seat I was going into * * * I was in the act of going into the seat." And the plaintiff's witness Healy testified that when the car started the plaintiff was standing on the sideboard of the car. This witness also testified that the car was in motion when the plaintiff attempted to get on it.

The liability of the defendant, if liable at all, is by reason of the existence of one of two facts or both of them, (1) the starting of the car before the plaintiff, after she had attempted to get on the car, had secured a safe position; or (2) the starting of the car in such a way as to cause the plaintiff to lose the position which she had secured. As to the first the jury might have found from the plaintiff's own testimony that she was in a secure position when the car started. There is no rule which obligates a street railroad not to start its cars until persons taking passage have actually been seated in the car. All that is required is that the car must not be started until the passenger is in a safe position. The jury might also have found from the plaintiff's own testimony that the car was not started in such a manner as to cause her to lose the position which she had. It is true she testified that the car started with a jerk, but it needs no testimony to inform the court that a crowded horse car must be started more or less with a jerk. Something more than this must be proved in order to establish negligence in this respect. In Black v. Third Avenue R.R. Co. ( 2 App. Div. 387) this court held that proof of the starting with a jerk was not in and of itself sufficient proof from which the jury could infer negligence. This being the condition of the testimony on the part of the plaintiff, it seems to me that the court erred in giving the instruction above quoted, because an inference might have been drawn by the jury from the testimony introduced by the plaintiff, that the defendant was not negligent.

For these reasons I am unable to concur in the prevailing opinion.

VAN BRUNT, P.J., concurred.

Judgment and order affirmed. with costs.