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
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
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.