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U.S. Supreme Court

Weightman v. Corporation of Washington, 66 U.S. 1 Black 39 39 (1861)

Weightman v. Corporation of Washington

66 U.S. (1 Black) 39




1. When a municipal corporation is required by its charter to keep a bridge in repair, if the duty was imposed in consideration of privileges granted, and if the means to perform it are within the control of the corporation, such corporation is liable to the public for an unreasonable neglect to comply with the requirement.

2. When all the foregoing conditions concur, a corporation is also liable for injuries to the persons or property of individuals.

3. This liability extends to injuries arising from neglect to perform the duty enjoined or from negligence and unskillfulness in its performance.

This was a writ of error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Columbia. The plaintiff in error chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 40

brought case against the Corporation of Washington for bodily injuries suffered by him in consequence of being thrown from the bridge across Rock Creek, at the termination of K Street. On the trial in the circuit court, the plaintiff proved that the charter of the city (sec. 13) provided that

"the said corporation shall have the sole control and management of the bridge, and shall be chargeable with the expenses of keeping the same in repair, and rebuilding it when necessary."

In May, 1854, the plaintiff, a citizen of Washington, was crossing the bridge in an omnibus when the bridge broke down, and he was seriously injured. On part of the defendant, evidence was given that the bridge had been erected by skillful and scientific workmen, in good faith, upon a plan patented by the government and believed to be faultless in principle; that the construction was thought to be strong and solid, both the work and materials being of the best description; that the giving way of the bridge was the result of an accident and of an unknown defect in the plan of it; that when the bridge was completed, in 1850, its strength and capacity were amply tested; that a commissioner was appointed by the corporation of the city to inspect and superintend the bridge, who performed his duties, but did not discover any defect; that the corporation had no notice, either through their officer or otherwise, that the bridge was unsafe, and that in fact there was no indication of unsoundness in it before the time of its fall.

To rebut this evidence of the defendant, the plaintiff proved that the bridge was built by Rider, the patentee of the plan, who warned the officers of the city corporation in vain against building the arch as high as they proposed to make it; that any bridge on that plan, unless it be horizontal, is unsafe, and the insecurity is increased in proportion as the arch is raised; that within a year after the bridge was put up, the approach to it was changed at each end, adding thereby about three tons to its weight; that for several days before it fell, divers persons observed its unsafe condition.

The defendant prayed the court to instruct the jury that upon the whole evidence the plaintiff was not entitled to recover, and the court gave the instructions prayed for. A verdict chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 41

and judgment were accordingly given for the defendant, and the plaintiff sued out this writ of error. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 45


This is a writ of error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Columbia.

According to the transcript, the action was trespass on the case, and was brought by the plaintiff, to recover damages against the corporation, defendants, on account of certain personal injuries sustained by him from the falling of a certain bridge constructed by the authorities of the corporation, and which, as he alleged, they were bound to keep in good repair, and safe and convenient for travel.

Referring to the declaration, it will be seen that the plaintiff alleged, in substance and effect, that at the time and long before chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 46

the bringing of the suit, there was and still is a certain common and public bridge over Rock Creek leading from K Street north, in the City of Washington, to Water Street in Georgetown, and that the defendants had been accustomed to keep the same in repair, and of right ought to have made such repairs to the same as to have rendered it safe and convenient for travel by the citizens generally, whether on foot, or with their horses, carts, carriages, or other vehicles; nevertheless the plaintiff averred that the bridge, on the twentieth day of May, 1854, was in an insecure, unsafe, and dangerous condition by reason of the default and negligence of the defendants, so that while the plaintiff was then and there lawfully passing over and across the same in an ordinary vehicle, the bridge, in consequence of its unsafe and insecure condition and of the default and negligence of the defendants, broke, gave way, and fell in, whereby the plaintiff was, with great force, thrown and precipitated into the creek, and received the injuries particularly described in the declaration.

Issue was duly joined between the parties upon the plea of not guilty filed by the defendants, and upon that issue the parties went to trial. Evidence was introduced by the plaintiff showing that he was returning from Georgetown to the City of Washington at the time the accident occurred, and was riding in one of the omnibuses running between the two cities; that while crossing the bridge in the omnibus, the bridge gave way and fell, and the vehicle, with the plaintiff in it, was precipitated into the creek, whereby he narrowly escaped drowning. His left arm was broken and his left hand crushed; and the statement of the bill of exceptions is that "the hand and arm have been rendered useless for life." He was also seriously bruised, and his injuries were of such a character that he was confined thereby to his house for a long time, under medical attendance, and the case shows that throughout the whole of that period of time he suffered great bodily pain.

On the other hand, evidence was given by the defendants that before any plan of the contemplated structure was adopted, they passed an ordinance raising a committee to advertise for proposals for the erection of the abutments and construction chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 47

of the bridge. That committee consisted of the mayor and two other members of the council, and the evidence offered by the defendants tended to show that they took the opinion of scientific men upon the subject before they approved the plan under which the bridge was built, and that the defendants acted in good faith throughout and with a view of building a bridge suitable in all respects for the purposes for which it was required. They also offered evidence tending to show that the materials of the bridge were of the best description, that the work was carefully examined by their agents as the same was done, and that the giving way of the bridge was solely the result of accident arising from a defect in the plan under which it was constructed. After the bridge was built, the defendants passed another ordinance, appointing a commissioner to inspect the bridge, and they introduced evidence tending to show that he never ascertained or reported to them that the bridge was unsafe, defective, and out of repair, and they insisted at the trial, and offered evidence tending to prove, that they had no notice from that officer, or otherwise, that the bridge was insecure, unsafe, or defective either in principle or in fact.

Rebutting evidence was then given by the plaintiff showing that the bridge was an iron bridge with a single span of more than a hundred feet; that it was constructed on the plan of Rider's patent, and was built by the inventor of that improvement. He also gave evidence tending to prove that one of the scientific persons whose opinion was sought by the committee appointed under the first ordinance stated to the defendants at the time he was consulted to the effect that, although the principle of the plan was correct, still it could not be applied indefinitely to iron bridges; that the arch of the bridge was higher than had ever before been attempted, and that the contractor remonstrated against building it so high, but that the defendants required it to be so constructed, and he also proved that the contractor was still of the opinion that the bridge fell in consequence of the height of the arch. One of the committee also was examined by the plaintiff, and he testified that he was not consulted about the plan; that although chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 48

he believed it to be a good one at the time, he is now satisfied that it was essentially and radically defective. He also examined the commissioner of the first ward, who testified that he crossed the bridge a few days before the accident occurred, and that it was so tremulous and shook so violently that he was apprehensive it would fall; and divers other witnesses testified that for several days before the bridge fell, they had observed that several of the braces were broken, and some of the wedges had fallen out, and the bridge was loose and shook greatly when carriages passed over it.

At the prayer of the defendants, the court instructed the jury that upon the whole evidence, the plaintiff could not recover in this action, and the plaintiff excepted. Under the instructions of the court, the jury returned their verdict in favor of the defendants.

1. Looking at the whole evidence, it is obvious that the charge of the court cannot be regarded as correct unless it be true, as is contended by the defendants, that they are not responsible in damages to an individual for injuries received by him in crossing the bridge, although it may appear that the injuries were received without any fault of the complaining party, and were occasioned solely through the defect of the bridge and the default and negligence of the defendants. It is conceded that the defendants were bound by their charter to maintain the bridge and keep it in repair, and it is fully proved, and not denied, that it was defective and very much out of repair at the time the accident occurred. Full and uncontradicted proof was also adduced by the plaintiff that he was seriously and permanently injured; and it is not possible to doubt from the evidence that his injuries were received without any fault of his own and solely through the insufficiency of the bridge and its want of repair. Want of ordinary care on the part of the plaintiff was not even suggested at the trial, and the circumstances disclosed in the evidence afford no ground whatever for any such inference.

Having shown these facts, it only remained for the plaintiff to prove if the defendants, under any circumstances, are responsible, in this form of action, for such an injury, that they chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 49

were in default, and had been guilty of negligence in suffering the bridge to continue open for public travel while it was known to be out of repair and insecure. Both sides introduced testimony on this point, but the charge of the court withdrew entirely the plaintiff's evidence from the consideration of the jury. Where there is no evidence to sustain the action, or one of its essential elements, the court is bound so to instruct the jury; but where there is evidence tending to prove the entire issue, it is not competent for the court, although the evidence may be conflicting, to give an instruction which shall take from the jury the right of weighing the evidence and determining its force and effect, for the reason that, by all the authorities, they are the judges of the credibility of the witnesses, and the force and effect of the testimony. Greenleaf v. Birth, 9 Pet. 299; Bank of Washington v. Triplet, 1 Pet. 31. Applying that rule to the present case, it is clear, in view of what has already been stated, that the charge of the court cannot be sustained, if the defendants are liable in this form of action, under any circumstances, for such an injury.

2. It is not, however, upon any such ground that the defendants attempt to sustain the instruction, but they insist that, being a municipal corporation, created by an act of Congress, they are invested with the power over the bridge merely as agents of the public, from public considerations and for public purposes exclusively, and they are not responsible for the nonfeasances or misfeasances of the persons necessarily employed by them to accomplish the object for which the power was granted. Municipal corporations undoubtedly are invested with certain powers, which, from their nature, are discretionary, such as the power to adopt regulations or bylaws for the management of their own affairs, or for the preservation of the public health, or to pass ordinances prescribing and regulating the duties of policemen and firemen, and for many other useful and important objects within the scope of their charters. Such powers are generally regarded as discretionary, because, in their nature, they are legislative; and although it is the duty of such corporations to carry out the chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 50

powers so granted and make them beneficial, still it has never been held that an action on the case would lie against the corporation, at the suit of an individual, for the failure on their part to perform such a duty. But the duties arising under such grants are necessarily undefined, and, in many respects, imperfect in their obligation, and they must not be confounded with the burdens imposed, and the consequent responsibilities arising, under another class of powers usually to be found in such charters, where a specific and clearly defined duty is enjoined in consideration of the privileges and immunities which the act of incorporation confers and secures. Where such a duty of general interest is enjoined, and it appears, from a view of the several provisions of the charter, that the burden was imposed in consideration of the privileges granted and accepted, and the means to perform the duty are placed at the disposal of the corporation, or are within their control, they are clearly liable to the public if they unreasonably neglect to comply with the requirement of the charter; and it is equally clear, when all the foregoing conditions concur, that, like individuals, they are also liable for injuries to person or property arising from neglect to perform the duty enjoined, or from negligence and unskillfulness in its performance. At one time it was held that an action on the case for a tort could not be maintained against a corporation, and indeed it was doubted whether assumpsit would lie against a corporation aggregate, since, it was said, the corporation could only bind itself under seal; but courts of justice have long since come to a different conclusion on both points, and it is now well settled that corporations, as a general rule, may contract by parol, and, like individuals, they are liable for the negligent and unskillful acts of their servants and agents, whenever those acts occasion special injury to the person or property of another. Whether the action in this case is maintainable against the defendants or not, depends upon the terms and conditions of their charter, as is obvious from the views already advanced.

By the second section of their charter it is provided, among other things, that they shall continue to be a body politic and corporate, "and, by their corporate name, may sue and chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 51

be sued, implead and be impleaded, grant, receive, and do all other acts as natural persons." They may purchase and hold real, personal, and mixed property, and dispose of the same for the benefit of the city. Large and valuable privileges also are conferred upon the defendants, and the thirteenth section of the charter provides, in effect, that the defendants shall have the sole control and management of the bridge in question, "and shall be chargeable with the expense of keeping the same in repair, and rebuilding it when necessary." Comment upon the provision is unnecessary, as it is obvious that the duty enjoined is as specific and complete as our language can make it, and it is equally clear that the bridge is placed under the sole control and management of the defendants and, in view of the several provisions of the charter, not a doubt is entertained that the burden of repairing or rebuilding the bridge was imposed upon the defendants, in consideration of the privileges and immunities conferred by the charter. Most ample means also are placed at the disposal of the defendants or within their control to enable them to perform the duty enjoined. Whatever difference of opinion there may be as to the other conditions required to fix the liability, on this one, it would seem there can be none, as the defendants have very large powers to lay and collect taxes on almost every description of property, real and personal, as well as on stocks and bonds and mortgages, and they also derive means for the use of the city from granting licenses, and from the rents and profits of real estate which they own and hold. All the conditions of liability, therefore, as previously explained, concur in this case.

It is supposed by the defendants that the decision of this Court in City of Providence v. Clapp, 17 How. 161, is opposed to the right of the plaintiff to maintain this action; but we think otherwise. Injury had been received by the plaintiff in that case, in consequence of one of the principal streets of the city having been blocked up and encumbered with snow, and the principal question was whether such an obstruction was one within the meaning of the statute of the state on which the action was founded, and the Court held that the city was chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 52

liable. Cities and towns are required by statute in most or all of the northeastern states to keep their highways safe and convenient for travelers by day and by night, and if they neglect that duty and suffer them to get out repair and defective and anyone receives injury through such defect either to his person or property, the delinquent corporation is responsible in damages to the injured party. No one, however, can maintain an action against the corporation grounded solely on the defect and want of repair of the highway, but he must also allege and prove that the corporation had notice of the defect or want of repair and that he was injured either in person or property in consequence of the unsafe and inconvenient state of the highway. Duty to repair in such cases is a duty owed to the public, and consequently, if one person might sue for his proportion of the damages for the nonperformance of the duty, then every member of the community would have the same right of action, which would be ruinous to the corporation, and for that reason it was held at common law that no action founded merely on the neglect to repair would lie. It was a sound rule of law, and prevails everywhere to the present time. Reference is often made to the case of Russell v. Men of Devon, 2 Term 667, as an authority to show that no action will lie against a municipal corporation in a case like the present, but it is a misapplication of the doctrine there laid down. Suit was brought in that case against the inhabitants of a district, called a county, where there was no act of incorporation, and the court held that the action would not lie, admitting, however, at the same time that the rule was otherwise in respect to corporations. But whether that be so or not, the rule here adopted has been fully sanctioned in all the English courts. Henley v. The Mayor of Lyme, 5 Bing. 91. It was ruled in the Common Pleas by Best, Ch.J., and the case was then removed into the King's Bench by writ of error, and was then decided by Lord Tenderden and his associates in the same way. Same v. Same, 3 Barn. & Adol. 77.

Judgment of affirmance having been given in the King's Bench, the cause was removed to the House of Lords by another writ of error sued out by the same party. Baron Parke chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 66 U. S. 53

gave the opinion on the occasion, all of the other judges and the Lord Chancellor concurring. Among other things, he said that in order to make good the declaration, it must appear first that the corporation is under a legal obligation to repair the place in question; secondly that such obligation is matter of so general and public concern that an indictment would lie against the corporation for nonrepair; thirdly, that the place in question is out of repair; and lastly, that the plaintiff has sustained some peculiar damage beyond the rest of the King's subjects by such want of repair, and after explaining these several conditions and showing that the case fell within the principles laid down, he stated that it was clear and undoubted law that wherever an indictment would lie for nonrepair, an action on the case would lie at the suit of a party sustaining any peculiar damage. Mayor of Lyme Regis v. Henley, 2 Cl. & Fin. 331. Numerous decisions have since that time been made by the courts in this country approving the rule laid down in that case and applying it to cases like the present. Erie v. Schwingle, 22 Penn. 384; Storrs v. City of Utica, 17 N.Y. 104; Conrad v. Trustees of Ithaca, 16 N.Y. 159; Browning v. City of Springfield, 17 Ill. 143; Hutson v. City of N.Y., 5 Sand. S.C. 289; Lloyd v. Mayor of City of N.Y., 1 Seld. 369; Wilson v. City of N.Y., 1 Denn. 595; 2 Denn. 450; Rochester White Lead Co. v. City of Rochester, 3 Conn. 463; Smoot v. Mayor of Wetumpka, 24 Ala. 112; Hicocke v. Trustees of Village of Plattsburg, 15 Barb. S.C. 427; Mayor of N.Y. v. Furze, 3 Hill 612. Contrary decisions undoubtedly are to be found, but most of the cases are based upon a misapplication of what was decided in Russell v. Men of Devon, to which reference has already been made and which is certainly not an authority for any such doctrine at the present time. In view of the whole case, we are of the opinion that the charge of the circuit court was erroneous, and the judgment is accordingly

Reversed with costs and the cause remanded with directions to issue a new venire.

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