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U.S. Supreme Court

Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Pendleton, 122 U.S. 347 (1887)

Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Pendleton

Argued April 27, 1887

Decided May 27, 1887

122 U.S. 347


The statutes of the State of Indiana, §§ 4176, 4178, Rev.Stat. Ind. 1881, which require telegraph companies to deliver dispatches by messenger to the persons to whom the same are addressed or to their agents provided they reside within one mile of the telegraphic station or within the city or town in which such station is are in conflict with the clause of the Constitution of the United States which vests in Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states insofar as they attempt to regulate the delivery of such dispatches at places situated in other states.

The authority of Congress over the subject of commerce by telegraph with foreign countries or among the states being supreme, no state can impose an impediment to its freedom by attempting to regulate the delivery in other states of messages received within its own borders.

The reserved police power of a state under the Constitution, although difficult to define, does not extend to the regulation of the delivery at chanrobles.com-red

Page 122 U. S. 348

points without the state of telegraphic messages received within the state; but the state may, within the reservation that it does not encroach upon the free exercise of the powers vested in Congress, make all necessary provisions in respect of the buildings, poles, and wires of telegraph companies within its jurisdiction which the comfort and convenience of the community may require.

The statute of Indiana declares that

"Every electric telegraph company, with a line of wires wholly or partly in this state and engaged in telegraphing for the public shall, during the usual office hours, receive dispatches, whether from other telegraphing lines or from individuals, and on payment or tender of the usual charge, according to the regulations of such company, shall transmit the same with impartiality and good faith, and in the order of time in which they are received, under penalty, in case of failure to transmit or if postponed out of such order, of one hundred dollars, to be recovered by the person whose dispatch is neglected or postponed, provided however that arrangements may be made with the publishers of newspapers for the transmission of intelligence of general and public interest out of its order, and that communications for and from officers of justice shall take precedence of all others."

§ 4176, Rev.Stat.Ind. 1881, and that

"Such companies shall deliver all dispatches, by messenger, to the persons to whom the same are addressed or to their agents on the payment of any charges due for the same, provided such persons or agents reside within one mile of the telegraphic station or within the city or town in which such station is."

§ 4178 ibid.

The present action is brought by William Pendleton, the plaintiff below, to recover of the Western Union Telegraph Company the penalty of $100 prescribed by the above statute for failing to deliver at Ottumwa, in Iowa, a message received by it in Indiana for transmission to that place. The complaint, as finally amended, alleges that the defendant below, the Western Union Telegraph Company, is a corporation organized and subsisting under the laws of Indiana, with a line of wires from Shelbyville, in that state, to Ottumwa, in Iowa; that on the 14th of April, 1883, at chanrobles.com-red

Page 122 U. S. 349

35 minutes past 5 o'clock in the afternoon, at which time the company was engaged in telegraphing for the public, the plaintiff delivered to its agent at its office in Shelbyville the following telegram for transmission to its office in Ottumwa, viz.,

"April 14, 1883"

"To Rosa Pendleton, care James Harker, near City grave-Yard, Ottumwa, Iowa:"

"Have you shipped things? If not, don't ship. Answer quick."


"That, upon its delivery, the plaintiff paid the agent sixty cents, being the amount of the charge required for its transmission from Shelbyville to Ottumwa; that, without any fault or interference on his part, the company, after transmitting the message to Ottumwa, where it was received at half past seven in the afternoon of that day, failed to deliver it either to Rosa Pendleton or to James Harker, whereby the plaintiff sustained damage and the defendant became liable for $100 under the statute of Indiana, for which sum plaintiff demands judgment."

To this complaint the company answered, admitting the receipt of the telegram as alleged and setting up that it transmitted the message with impartiality and good faith, in the order of time in which it was received, and without delay, to its office in Ottumwa, Iowa, where it was received, as alleged at half past seven of that day; that James Harker, to whose care the message was directed, lived more than one mile from the telegraph station at Ottumwa; that, in accordance with the usual custom of the office, the message was without delay placed in the post office of that town, with proper stamp thereon, and duly addressed, and that the telegram was received by the person to whom it was addressed on the following morning, April 15, 1883 at about 9 o'clock.

The answer further set forth that the duties and liabilities of telegraph companies in Iowa, and the transmission and delivery of the telegrams within the state, are regulated by a chanrobles.com-red

Page 122 U. S. 350

special statute of that state, which is as follows, viz.:

"Any person employed in transmitting messages by telegraph must do so without unreasonable delay, and anyone who willfully fails thus to transmit them, or who intentionally transmits a message erroneously, or makes known the contents of any message sent or received to any person except him to whom it is addressed or to his agent or attorney, is guilty of a misdemeanor. The proprietor of a telegraph is liable for all mistakes in transmitting messages made by any person in his employment and for all damages resulting from a failure to perform any other duties required by law."

That by that statute, the defendant was not required to deliver telegrams by messenger to the persons to whom they were addressed. That in the City of Ottumwa it had established a certain district within which it delivered telegrams by messenger, and that, on the receipt of the telegram in question at Ottumwa, it was ascertained that Harker, to whose care it was addressed, did not reside within the delivery district, but outside of it, and more than one mile from the defendant's office, and that, in accordance with the custom and usage of the office and in order to facilitate the delivery of the message, a copy of the telegram was promptly placed in the post office at Ottumwa, with proper address, and delivered as stated above.

To this answer the plaintiff demurred, the circuit court of the state sustained the demurrer, and, the defendant electing to stand upon its answer, judgment was rendered for the plaintiff for $100, which, on appeal to the supreme court of the state, was affirmed, and the company brings the case here for review. chanrobles.com-red

Page 122 U. S. 356


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