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Union Stock Yards Co. of Omaha v. Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy R.R

    Brief Fact Summary. The employee of Union Stock Yards Co. of Omaha (Plaintiff) was injured because Plaintiff and Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy R.R. (Defendant) negligently failed to inspect a defective railroad car. Plaintiff paid damages to the employee. Plaintiff then sought to recover these paid damages from Defendant in a suit of contribution.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When two parties, acting together, commit an illegal or wrongful act, the party that is held responsible for the act cannot have indemnity or contribution from the other, because both are equally culpable, and the damage results from their joint offense.

    Facts. A railroad company, Defendant, and a terminal company, Plaintiff, both failed to inspect a railroad car before putting it in use. The car had a defective nut and injured Plaintiff’s employee. Either Plaintiff or Defendant could have discovered the defective nut with a reasonable inspection. Both Plaintiff and Defendant were negligent. Plaintiff paid its employee damages. Plaintiff now seeks to recover these damages from Defendant. The lower court entered a judgment in favor of Defendant. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. Can Plaintiff recover, from Defendant, the damages paid to its employee when Plaintiff and Defendant are both equally at fault?

    Held. No. Judgment for Defendant affirmed.
    * The general rule is that one of several wrongdoers cannot recover against another wrongdoer, although he may have been compelled to pay all the damages for the wrong done. When two parties, acting together, commit an illegal or wrongful act, the party that is held responsible for the act cannot have indemnity or contribution from the other, because both are equally culpable, and the damage results from their joint offense. If the employee had brought suit against both Plaintiff and Defendant, then it is likely that the employee would have received damage awards from both Plaintiff and Defendant.
    * In some cases, the court has abandoned this rule to impose liability on the principle wrongdoer. There are exceptions engrafted upon the general rule of non-contribution among wrongdoers. The law will inquire into the facts of a case to impose liability upon the one whose wrong was primarily responsible for the injury sustained.
    * Plaintiff argued that Defendant was primarily responsible for the injury to employee because it was Defendant that had the first duty of inspection. The court did not agree. The negligence of the parties was of the same character. Both parties failed to inspect when they had a duty to. The facts of this case do not fall within the exception to the rule, which permits one wrongdoer that has been held liable for damages to be indemnified or receive contribution from another.

    Discussion. If Defendant’s fault had been greater, then Plaintiff may have been allowed to recover. However, in this case, both Plaintiff and Defendant are equally at fault.


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