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John Stoltenberg v. Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Company


Postcard depicting Pittsburgh in 1902. Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Yard can be seen along the Monongahela River.

Source: Library of Congress

On morning of July 29, 1892, John Stoltenberg began repair work on top of a railroad car that he was assured would not be moved until Noon. Before that time, an engineer began to move the car on which Mr. Stoltenberg was still on top to a different location in the rail yard. Stoltenberg struck a wire that his employers installed five feet above the rail cars used to support a telegraph pole.


In February of the following year, Stoltenberg's counsel filed a complaint against his employer, Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Company and requesting the defendant plead within fifteen days.


The Allegheny County Sheriff served the complaint on Stoltenberg's employer, the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Company.


Stoltenberg alleged that P&LERR were negligent in installing the wire at a height that was foreseeable to cause injury to a man on top of a moving rail car.

Because of his injuries and the costs associated with the accident, Stoltenberg sought $10,000 from the defendant. 

In response, the Railroad Company pleaded Not Guilty.

After hearing evidence in the case, Court of Common Pleas Judge John W.F. White charged the jury. In his charge, Judge White recapped the evidence they had heard and framed the legal issue they were to consider.

Judge White defined negligence as "carelessness; the want of care and prudence" and instructed the jury that in order to recover damages, Stoltenberg could not have been negligent in a way that caused the accident that day. The judge essentially absolved Stoltenberg's co-workers and the doctors sent by the company to address his injuries of any negligence based on the evidence presented at trial. Essentially the issue before the jury was whether the Railroad Company was negligent in installing wire at a height that would foreseeably cause an injury to a man working on top of a rail car. White also instructed the jury on determining damages.

Ultimately the jury found the Railroad Company guilty, but awarded Stoltenberg $750 instead of the $10,000 he sought.


Stoltenberg paid the Sheriff $4.00 for his work.


Unhappy with the verdict, the Company filed a Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania with a surety of $1,500.

surety:  A person who is primarily liable for the payment of another's debt or the performance of another's obligation. - Black's Law Dictionary 8th Ed.


After review, Justice D. Newlin Fell wrote the opinion finding no error in Judge White's instruction to the jury and no error in the jury's finding of negligence on behalf of the Appellant Railroad Company.

While an appeal from the Court of Common Pleas typically is first taken to the Superior Court, established in 1895, or in this case likely first to the Worker's Compensation Appeal Board and later the Commonwealth Court, established in 1970, this case illustrates a similar trial and appeal process as you may encounter today.

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