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SINKLER v. MISSOURI PACIFIC RAILROAD CO.

decided: April 28, 1958.

SINKLER
v.
MISSOURI PACIFIC RAILROAD CO.



CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS OF TEXAS, NINTH SUPREME JUDICIAL DISTRICT.

Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker

Author: Brennan

[ 356 U.S. Page 326]

 MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was employed by the respondent railroad as a cook on the private car of respondent's general manager. He was working on the car when a switching crew, employed by the Houston Belt & Terminal Railway Company (hereinafter the Belt Railway), undertook to switch the car from one track to another in the Union Station at Houston, Texas. Through the fault of the switching crew, the car was caused violently to collide with another railroad car in the station, and the petitioner was injured. He recovered a judgment against the respondent in an action brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U. S. C. §§ 51-60, in the District Court of Harris County, Texas.

[ 356 U.S. Page 327]

     The Court of Civil Appeals for the Ninth Supreme Judicial District of Texas reversed upon the ground that the FELA did not subject the respondent to liability for injuries of its employee caused by the fault of employees of the Belt Railway. 295 S. W. 2d 508. The Supreme Court of Texas denied the petitioner's application for writ of error. We granted certiorari. 355 U.S. 809.

Neither the respondent railroad nor its predecessors have, since 1905, performed switching operations in the Houston terminal area. Switching is a vital operational activity of railroading consisting in the breaking up and assembly of trains and the handling of cars in interchange with other carriers. This function, in the Houston area, has been contracted by the respondent and its predecessors, and other carriers, to the Belt Railway, a carrier specially organized for that purpose.

The Belt Railway was organized by several carriers, including the predecessors of the respondent,*fn1 to own and operate the Union Station and to perform these switching operations. The organizing carriers, or their successors, own the Belt Railway's stock and are represented on its Board of Directors in proportion to their holdings. The respondent owns one-half of the stock and designates one-half of the directors. The Belt Railway receives some income from nonstockholding carriers but the carrier stockholders otherwise share the net expenses of its operations according to an agreed formula. The Belt Railway employs its own switching crews and other

[ 356 U.S. Page 328]

     personnel, and owns and operates the facilities and rolling stock used in the switching operations.

A railroad's liability under § 1 of the FELA is to compensate its employees in damages for injuries resulting in whole or in part from the fault of "any of the officers, agents, or employees" of such carrier. 45 U. S. C. § 51. No question of liability for the fault of officers or employees of the respondent is here raised, but only whether the petitioner's injuries were due to the fault of "agents" of the respondent within the meaning of the section.

The Court of Civil Appeals held that, since the Belt Railway was an independent contractor under lawful contract with respondent to do the switching operations on its behalf, the petitioner's injuries were not caused by respondent's "agents." The Court of Civil Appeals applied the general rule that the doctrine of respondeat superior does not extend to independent contractors and concluded that, since the evidence was insufficient to show that the respondent exercised control over the details of the Belt Railway's operations, the fault of its switching crew was not imputable to the respondent.*fn2

It should first be noted that some common-law jurisdictions recognized an exception to the general rule of respondeat superior when a railroad engaged an independent contractor to perform operational activities required to carry out the franchise. In that circumstance the railroad was held liable for the fault of the servants of the independent contractor even though the railroad did not control ...


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