Cleghorn v. New York Central & H. River Ry. Co.
56 N.Y. 44 (1874)

  • The switchman at a train crossing (Hartman) failed to close a switch properly and there was a train collision, injuring Cleghorn, who sued for negligence.
    • Hartman was suspected of being drunk on duty.
  • At trial, Cleghorn attempted to introduce evidence that the switchman was an alcoholic (aka 'of intemperate habits').
    • NY Central objected on the grounds that this testimony was inadmissible because it was being presented solely to show that Hartman acted in conformity with his character.
  • The Trial Judge allowed the evidence to be admitted.
  • The Trial Court found for Cleghorn.  NY Central appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • The Appellate Court found that whether Hartman was an alcoholic or not was not relevant for determining if he was drunk at the time of the accident.
  • The New York Supreme Court partially reversed.
    • The New York Supreme Court agreed that Hartman's alcoholism had no bearing on whether he was drunk on the night of the accident, and could not be admitted for that purpose.
      • Under the common law, the evidence is excluded because it would be an attempt to prove that Hartman acted in conformity with his character.
    • However, the Court found that Hartman's alcoholism did have bearing on his personal character, and that was relevant to establishing Cleghorn's argument that NY Central should have fired him prior to the accident, and their negligence in not doing so made them liable for Hartman's actions.
      • Although the evidence was not admissible to show that Hartman was drunk, it was admissible to show that Hartman was often drunk and that NY Central was negligent for hiring known drunks to run their switches.
      • NY Central is entitled to a limiting instruction on how the jury should use the evidence.
  • This case was decided under the common law.  Today, it would be covered by FRE 404.