Alexandria and Nebraska City Railroad Company v. Smith/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

88 U.S. 255


The interrogatories to the witness Meador, the answers to which were excluded, inquired whether the structure and arrangements of the bridge caused any injury or damage, hindrance or delay, to the company in the running of its railroad, and whether any hindrance or delay was caused by the imperfect construction of the bridge to any vessel in the navigation of the river, and whether the structure or working of the bridge rendered it liable to be injured or destroyed by vessels navigating the river, and what number of hands were required to work the drawbridge, and what number would be necessary if it had been properly constructed.

The exclusion of these interrogatories and the answers to them constitutes the first error assigned for a reversal of the judgment. The objection to them was that they related to speculative damages. This objection cannot apply to two of the inquiries, the first and the last stated. The damages sustained by the company by any detention of its cars from the imperfect working of the bridge would be the subject of actual estimation; and the same thing may be said when the difference was ascertained between the number of hands required to work the bridge and the number necessary if it had been properly constructed. The facts the inquiries sought to elicit would at least have furnished elements to the jury for a just estimate of the damages to be recouped from the demand of the plaintiffs. All damages directly arising from the imperfect character of the structure, which would have been avoided had the structure been made pursuant to the contract, and for which the defendant might have instituted a separate action against the contractors, were provable against their demand in the present action. The law does not require a party to pay for imperfect and defective work the price stipulated for a perfect structure; and when that price is demanded, will allow him to deduct the difference between that price and the value of the inferior work, and also the amount of any direct damages flowing from existing defects, not exceeding the demand of the plaintiffs. This is a rule of strict justice, and the deduction is allowed in a suit upon the contract to prevent circuity of action. In some States the law goes further and permits the defendant to recover judgment for any excess in his damages over the demand claimed. But although the interrogatories were pertinent and proper in themselves, we are unable to decide whether any harm resulted from the ruling of the court in excluding them and the answers obtained, for the answers are not contained in the record. For aught that we can know, the witness may have answered that he was unable to state what injury or damage, hindrance or delay was occasioned to the company in the running of the road by the defective character of the bridge, or what number of hands were employed or would have been necessary if the bridge had been properly constructed. We cannot, therefore, see that any harm resulted to the defendant from the exclusion. Whatever may be the rule elsewhere, to render an exception available in this court it must affirmatively appear that the ruling excepted to affected or might have affected the decision of the case. If the exception is to the refusal of an interrogatory, not objectionable in form, the record must show that the answer related to a material matter involved; or, if no answer was given, the record must show the offer of the party to prove by the witness particular facts, to which the interrogatory related, and that such facts were material. Such has been the decision of this court in several cases, and was distinctly affirmed at the present term in the case of Packet Company v. Clough. [*] We must, therefore, dismiss the first assignment of error as untenable.

But the defendant also offered to prove by experts, among other things, that the plan of the machinery and the machinery itself on which the bridge rested and swings, was so defective and so unskilfully put up, and the turning-gear itself was so defective and unskilfully attached that it took eight or ten men to swing the bridge, and that the bridge had to be swung twice a week on an average at a cost of fifteen dollars each time; and that under a contract to build such a drawbridge as is specified in the contract between the parties, it is the common understanding among persons skilled in bridge building that the bridge should be so constructed as to be easily turned in two or three minutes by one man; and also, that the quality of the material of the bridge, both wood and iron, was bad, and was put together in an unworkmanlike manner. The Circuit Court held that the proof thus offered was inadmissible and irrelevant, and in this ruling there was manifest error. It in fact denied the right of the defendant to set up any damages sustained by way of recoupment. Whereas, that right exists in all cases where an action is brought upon a building contract, which imposes mutual duties and obligations, and there has been a breach of its terms, either in the manner or time of execution, on the part of the plaintiffs, for which a cross-action might be maintained by the defendants.

The counsel of the plaintiffs seek to avoid the error of this ruling by insisting, that the imperfect working of the bridge was owing to a defect in the pier and not to any defect in the bridge, and that it was the duty of the defendant to put the pier in proper order to receive the bridge. The court below took this view of the duty of the defendant, and instructed the jury in substance, that for any defects in the pier the defendant was alone chargeable, and that if the difficulty in turning the bridge arose from a defect in the pier and not in the bridge, the plaintiffs were not responsible to the defendant for the result and consequent damages. The evidence shows that the pier was built under the supervision of an agent of the contractors, and in accordance with his directions, and was adopted by him as sufficient. He was superintendent in the construction of the bridge, and the plaintiffs were bound and he as their superintendent was bound, before proceeding with the construction, to see that the pier was in a proper condition for the bridge. His adoption of the pier as built was, therefore, directly within the sphere of his agency. The alleged defect in the pier, if any existed, consisted in its variation from a level as it was originally laid, and of course, as justly observed by counsel, was patent to the builders at the inception and at every stage of the construction. Under such circumstances, the contractors can no more justify their proceeding with the work without satisfying themselves of the fitness of the pier for the superstructure intended, than they could justify the erection of the bridge at some other point on the river. In the case of Jones v. McDermott, #fn-s-s [1] it was held that the performance of a contract to build a house for another on his soil, and that the work should be executed, finished, and ready for occupation, and be delivered over on a specified day, was not excused by the fact that there was a latent defect in the soil in consequence of which the walls sank and cracked, and the house became uninhabitable and dangerous and had to be partially taken down and rebuilt on artificial foundations. The present is a much stronger case for the application of the same principle. Here there was no latent defect discovered after the work was commenced. Whatever defect there was, was necessarily known to the agent of the contractors under whose supervision both the pier and the bridge were constructed. His knowledge in this particular was their knowledge. The contract called for the construction of a bridge upon which the cars of the company could cross, and implied that the bridge should be serviceable for that purpose and capable of being used with the like facility and ease as similar bridges properly constructed are used. If the condition of the pier, by its variation from a level or any other cause, prevented this result from being attained, it was the duty of the contractors to insist upon its alteration or to make the necessary alteration themselves. The position of counsel is, therefore, not tenable, and the instruction of the court upholding it was erroneous.

Other exceptions were taken to the rulings of the court, but as we have noticed those that went to the substance of the defence and the attempted answer to it, it is unnecessary to consider the case further.



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