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MACK v. READING COMPANY (03/22/54)

March 22, 1954

MACK
v.
READING COMPANY, APPELLANT



Appeal, No. 58, Jan. T., 1954, from order of Superior Court, Oct. T., 1953, No. 44, affirming judgment of Municipal Court of Philadelphia County, July T., 1949, No. 40, in case of Robert E. Mack et al., trading as Mack Transportation Company v. Reading Company. Order affirmed.

COUNSEL

Richard P. Brown, Jr., with him Henry R. Heebner and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, for appellant.

Lynn L. Detweiler, for appellees.

Before Stern, C.j., Stearne, Jones, Bell, Chidsey, Musmanno and Arnold, JJ.

Author: Stern

[ 377 Pa. Page 137]

OPINION BY MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HORACE STERN

The facts of this accident constitute such a typical situation for the application of the rule of evidence commonly known as the doctrine of "exclusive control" that the case might well serve as a classical example of the need and use of that doctrine for the ascertainment of liability.

One Everly was operating a tractor-trailer in the nighttime along U.S. Route 1 near Parkland, Pennsylvania, when a freight train passed in the opposite direction along a track of the Reading Company, this track being located at that point on an embankment about 10 or 15 feet above the highway and parallel to it at a distance of some 50 feet. Suddenly a dark object came diagonally across the road directly in the path of his truck so that he was unable to avoid colliding

[ 377 Pa. Page 138]

    with it. The object in question turned out to be a metal coupler of the type used to hold railroad cars together, weighing upwards of 300 pounds and about 3 feet long; it had broken off from one of the cars and had rolled down the embankment and onto the highway. The owners of the truck, Everly's employers, brought suit to recover the cost of repairing the damage to their vehicle. Having produced their evidence as to the circumstances of the accident they relied on the "exclusive control" doctrine to take their case to the jury. The trial judge having denied defendant's motion for a non-suit, defendant offered evidence to the effect that the breaking of the coupler had occurred on a hopper car owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad which, shortly before, had been turned over to the defendant on car interchange; that the car had then been given a visual inspection of all exposed parts, including both couplers, which revealed, however, no visible defect; that rust on the surface of the part of the coupler remaining in place on the car after the break indicated an old fracture; and that the break had occurred about 14 inches back from the end sill at a point not visible from the outside of the car. The court refused defendant's point for binding instructions and the jury found a verdict for plaintiff, the judgment entered on which was affirmed on appeal to the Superior Court (173 Pa. Superior Ct. 296, 98 A.2d 399). From that affirmance the present appeal was allowed.

The object of all rules of evidence is to ascertain the facts. A trial is not a game. Its purpose is to elicit the truth, and to that end those who best know the facts, and especially those who alone know the facts, are the ones who should be called upon to reveal them. Accordingly, as early as almost a century ago, Chief Justice ERLE, in the Court of Exchequer, in Scott v.

[ 377 Pa. Page 139]

    that negligence is presumed in such cases from the mere happening of the accident but that the circumstances amount to evidence from which it may be inferred by the jury: Zahniser v. Pennsylvania Torpedo Co., Lte., 190 Pa. 350, 353, 42 A. 707, 708; Lesick v. Proctor, 300 Pa. 347, 350, 150 A. 618, 619; Knox v. Simmerman, 301 Pa. 1, 4, 151 A. 678; Pope v. Reading Co., 304 Pa. 326, 330, 156 A. 106, 108. As expressed in Wright v. Straessley, 321 Pa. 1, 5, 182 A. 682, 684, "There is a class of cases in which accidents are attended by circumstances from which the inference of negligence is legitimate. But in such cases negligence is not presumption of law. It is a finding of fact, and before the fact can be found a jury must consider the circumstances, reason on them and draw the inference of negligence." Similar explanations of the nature, purpose and justification of the rule are to be found in such cases, for example, as Skeen v. Stanley Co. of America, 362 Pa. 174, ...


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