Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Look Both Ways at the Tracks

All Mary Betterly Carpenter French wanted to do was cross the railroad tracks.  Instead, she became a legal notable.

It was the early 1870s and 67-year old Mary and her preteen grandson, Everett C. Pierce, were traveling by carriage, approaching tracks of the Taunton (MA) Branch Railroad that passed near their Bristol County home in Berkley.  (There's not too much creative license here - Berkley is, shall we say, compact.)  Since they had seen a train just moments before, they proceeded across the tracks without stopping first.

However, unbeknownst to them, one car of the train had been decoupled so that it could make a running switch farther down the line.  As these Hackett relations crossed the tracks, that single rail car hit them, causing significant injuries.

Mary described, "The next I knew I was lying in the road, with blood on my face, and severe pain in my head.  I was holding the reins."

Everett said, "I found myself on the (railroad) car, a flat car loaded with scrap-iron; the car stopped; I saw my grandmother on the end of he car. . . . . "

While admitting that neither she nor Everett had looked before crossing the tracks, Mary nonetheless sued the railroad for personal injuries and for injury to her 10-year-old horse.  Amazingly, she won, although TRAEA's Grandma has not yet found out the exact settlement.  Winning was particularly noteworthy because similar suits against what were then the all-powerful railroads were routinely dismissed if it could be shown that the plaintiff bore the slightest degree of fault.

As a landmark case, Mary's suit has since been cited more than 70 times.

Not nearly as interesting as the case itself, but worth noting are the gyration's that TRAEA's Grandma went through to get the story.
  • Googled Mary's complete name, rather than any shortened version.  This generated a tantalizing synopsis in the 1884 publication by Houghton, Mifflin and Company and The Riverside Press, Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts / March-September 1874.  
  • Visited the Bristol Superior Court in Taunton, MA, because it wasn't clear to this non-legal mind whether Mary or the railroad prevailed.  The lady there was delightfully nice, kept assuring me that the case has been cited "more than 70 times," copied the Westlaw version of the case and never answered my question directly.
  • Called our family attorney to ask for a definitive answer.
He was astonished that Mary won.  He explained that during this time period if a plaintiff contributed in any way to their injuries they probably lost based on "contributory negligence."  Between the time Mary prevailed over the Taunton Branch Railroad and today, however, many states have instituted "comparative negligence" or "comparative fault" as a judicial standard so that a plaintiff who was perhaps a bit at fault may still receive compensation.

Did Mary play a part in that change?  This grandma would like to think so.

Tree links:
Mary Betterly / Bitterly Carpenter French, the widow of Ephraim French, may have been a child of Andrew and Mary Betteley
Everett C. Pierce was a grandson of Ephraim French

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