Mashington Gaslight Company v. District of Columbia/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

161 U.S. 316

MASHINGTON GASLIGHT COMPANY  v.  DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


The questions raised by the various assignments of error are: First, did the legal obligation primarily rest on the gas company to repair and keep the gas box in good order? Second, was that company liable over to the District in consequence of its failure to do so? Third, was the testimony of Smith, the witness in the original suit, admissible? Fourth, was the judgment rendered against the District conclusive against the gas company?

We will consider these questions in the order stated.

1. Did the legal duty rest primarily on the gas company to repair and keep the gas box in order?

The gaslight company was incorporated by an act of congress, approved July 8, 1848, and it was empowered 'to manufacture, make, and sell gas * * * to be used for the purpose of lighting the city of Washington, or the streets thereof, and any buildings, manufactories, or houses therein contained and situate, and to lay pipes for the purpose of conducting gas in any of the streets, avenues, and alleys of said city; * * * provided, however, that the said pipes should be laid subject to such conditions and in compliance with such regulations as the corporation of Washington may from time to time prescribe.'

The trial court instructed the jury that the gas box was a part of the apparatus of the company, and hence it was its duty to exercise proper care over it, and thus to prevent injury to persons using the sidewalk. The contention that this instruction was erroneous is based on the assertion that the gas box was not, and could not become, a part of the apparatus of that company, because, under its charter, only those things which were necessary in the manufacture of gas, and which were needed to convey it, after manufacture, into and through the streets, can be treated as part of its works. The proposition is without foundation. The plain object contemplated by the formation of the gas company was the supplying of the gas to be by it manufactured to consumers, and it is obvious that this could not be done without making a connection between the street mains and abutting dwellings. When such connections are made with the mains, they receive from them, and convey into dwellings, highly inflammable material, which flows by an uninterrupted channel from the mains themselves into such dwellings. It must therefore have necessarily been contemplated that such connections with the mains as were, from their very nature, incidental to and inseparably connected with the consumption of gas, should be a part of the apparatus of the gas company, and be under its control, rather than under that of the city or the property owner. Indeed, the control by the gas company of the connection from its mains to the point of use is as absolutely necessary to make it possible for such company to carry out the very purpose of its charter as are the retorts and mains. Moreover, the provision of the charter already quoted shows that it was thereby contemplated that the connections between the company's mains and the places where the gas was to be consumed should be made by the gas company, and become a part of its apparatus. The charter does not confer the power to lay pipes upon those desiring a supply of gas, but gives such power to the company.

The danger of serious damage to the public at large and to the property of individuals, and to the mains and other works and apparatus of the company, by intermeddling of third parties, would be precisely as great in the case of the lateral service pipes and the gas boxes placed in the sidewalks as in the case of interference with street mains. The necessity for affording protection to the company against such interference undoubtedly led to the enactment of the eighth section of the company's charter, wherein it is provided:

'That if any person or persons shall eilfully

'That if any person or persons shall wilfully whatever, whereby the works of said corporation, or any pipe, conduit, plug, cock, reservoir, or any engine, machine, or structure, or any matter or thing appertaining to the same, shall be stopped, obstructed, impaired, weakened, injured, or destroyed, the person or persons so offending shall forfeit and pay to the said corporation double the amount of the damage sustained by means of such offense or injury, to be recovered in the name of the said corporation, with costs of suit, in any action of debt, to be brought in any court having cognizance thereof.'

The authority of the company over the gas boxes and its correlative duty to supervise and keep them in order, thus deduced from the terms of the charter, the nature of its business, and the use to which the gas boxes are applied, is also sustained by authority. In Com. v. Lowell Gaslight Co., 12 Allen, 77, the court, in considering the question of what was the machinery and appliances of such company (page 78), said:

'The mains or pipes laid down in the streets and elsewhere to distribute the gas among those who are to consume it were clearly a part of the apparatus necessary to be used by the corporation in order to accomplish the object for which it was established. They constituted a part of the machinery by means of which the corporate business was carried on, in the same manner as pipes attached to a pump or fire engine for the distribution of water, or wheels in a mill, which communicate motion to looms and spindles, or the pipes attached to a steam engine to convey and distribute heat and steam for manufacturing purposes, make a portion of the machinery of the mill in which they are used. Indeed, in a broad, comprehensive, and legitimate sense, the entire apparatus by which gas is manufactured constitutes one great integral machine, consisting of retorts, station meters, gas holders, street mains, service pipes, and consumers' meters, all connecting and operating together, by means of which the initial, intermediate, and final processes are carried on, from its generation in the retort to its delivery for the use of consumers.'

It would be unreasonable to infer that congress, when it authorized the use of the streets or sidewalks for the purposes of the gas company's business, contemplated that the city of Washington, or its successor, the District of Columbia, should keep in repair such apparatus, the continued location of which in the sidewalks of the city was permitted, not only as an incident to the right to make and sell gas, but also for the pecuniary benefit of the gas company. We conclude, therefore, that the duty was imposed upon the gas company to supervise and keep the gas box in repair. This duty not only does not conflict with the charter of the company, but, on the contrary, is sanctioned by its tenor, and is imposed as an inevitable accessory of the powers which the charter confers. Nor do we think that this duty was affected by the* circumstances that the cost of the labor and materials used in the construction of the connection and gas box was paid by an occupant or owner of property who desired to be furnished with gas. As the service pipe and stopcock was a part of the apparatus of the company, and was used for the purpose of its business, it is entirely immaterial who paid the cost, or might, in law, on the cessation of the use of the service pipe and gas box by the company, be regarded as the owner of the mere materials. Certainly, it would not be claimed that, if the box and its connections became so defective or out of repair that gas escaped therefrom and caused injury, the company could legally assert that it was under no obligation to take care of the apparatus, because of the circumstance that it had been compensated by others for its outlay in the construction of the receptacles from which the gas had escaped.

The argument seeking to distinguish between the service pipe and other appliances of the gas company and the gas box, so as to make the company liable for the one and not for the other, is without merit. All these appliances were parts of the one structure, put in position and used together for the purposes of the company. There is nothing in the record even tending to show that such box was not one of the usual appliances of a gas company. It was manifestly treated as one of such instrumentalities, since it was put in the sidewalk as part of the works constructed for the purpose of introducing gas into the premises.

Nor are the foregoing conclusions weakened by the provisions of the city ordinance of March, 1866. That ordinance made it obligatory to construct service connections with the mains wherever the streets were ordered paved, without regard to an existing or immediately expected necessity for such service. The purpose of the ordinance was to secure connections for both gas and water before streets were paved, thus obviating the tearing up of the pavement when once laid. Whether the company, under its charter and the laws relating thereto, would be compelled to make, or allow to be made, indefinite service connections with vacant property, need not be considered, because its determination bears no relation to the question whether the company is bound to keep its appliances, when constructed, in safe condition. In leaving this branch of the case, however, we add that it is clear from the proof that the gas box in question was not constructed in consequence of a duty imposed by this ordinance. It was put in place by the company voluntarily, at the request of the property owner for service. The work was done by the company upon a permit given by the District allowing the opening of an existing street and the sidewalk thereon.

2. Had the District a cause of action against the gas company, resulting from the fact that it had been condemned to pay damages occasioned by the defective gas box, which it was the duty of the gas company to supervise and repair?

An affirmative answer to this proposition is rendered necessary by both principle and authority. This court said in Chicago City v. Robbins, 2 Black, 418, 422: 'It is well settled that a municipal corporation, having the exclusive care and control of the streets, is obliged to see that they are kept safe for the passage of persons and property, and to abate all nuisances that might prove dangerous; and if this plain duty is neglected, and any one is injured, it is liable for the damages sustained. The corporation has, however, a remedy over against the party that is in fault, and has so used the streets as to produce the injury, unless it was also a wrongdoer.' And the same doctrine is reiterated, in almost the identical language, in Robbins v. Chicago City, 4 Wall. 657, 670.

The principle thus announced qualifies and restrains within just limits the rigor of the rule which forbids recourse between wrongdoers. In the leading case of Lowell v. Railroad, 23 Pick. 24, 32, the doctrine was thus stated:

'Our law, however, does not in every case disallow an action by one wrongdoer against another to recover damages incurred in consequence of their joint offense. The rule is, 'In pari delicto, potior est conditio defendentis.' If the parties are not equally criminal, the principal delinquent may be held responsible to his codelinquent for damages incurred by their joint offense. In respect to offenses in which is involved any moral delinquency or turpitude, all parties are deemed equally guilty, and courts will not inquire into their relative guilt. But where the offense is merely malum prohibitum, and is in no respect immoral, it is not against the policy of the law to inquire into the relative delinquency of the parties, and to administer justice between them, although both parties are wrongdoers.'

In Brooklyn v. Brooklyn City R. Co., 47 N. Y. 475, the same rule was applied, the court saying (page 487): 'Where the parties are not equally criminal, the principal delinquent may be held responsible to a codelinquent for damage paid by reason of the offense in which both were concerned, in different degrees, as perpetrators.' All the cases referred to involved only the right of a municipal corporation to recover over the amount of the damages for which it had been held liable in consequence of a defective street, occasioned by the neglect or failure of another to perform his legal duty. The rule, however, is not predicated on the peculiar or exceptional rights of municipal corporations. It is general in its nature. It has been applied to public piers (Oceanic Steam-Nav. Co. v. Compania Transatlantica Espanola, 144 N. Y. 663, 39 N. E. 360; Id., 134 N. Y. 461, 31 N. E. 987); to the right of a property owner to recover for damages which he had been compelled to pay for a defective wire attached by a gaslight company to the chimney of the owner's house (Gray v. Boston Gaslight Co., 114 Mass. 149); to the right of a master to recover over the damages which he had been obliged to pay in consequence of a servant's negligence (Grand Trunk Ry. Co. v. Latham, 63 Me. 177; Smith v. Foran, 43 Conn. 244). Indeed, the cases which illustrate the rule and its application to many conditions of fact are too numerous for citation, and are collected in teh text-books. Whart. Neg. 246; 2 Thomp. Neg. 789, 1061; Sherm. & R. Neg. (4th Ed.) § 301; 2 Dill. Mun. Corp. § 1035, and cases there referred to in note.

3. Was the testimony of Smith, the witness in the original action, admissible for the purpose of throwing light on the record of that action, in order to show the subject-matter there in controversy, and thereby to assist in the ascertainment of what was concluded by the judgment therein rendered? No question is made as to the adequacy of the foundation laid for the introduction of the secondary evidence. The sole controversy presented is the admissibility of the testimony. The bill of exceptions is general, and specifies no particular objection. Clearly, even although it be conceded that the testimony of the witness given on the first trial was res inter alios as to the defendant in this action, and was therefore not admissible as going to establish substantive facts, yet obviously it was competent for the purpose of throwing light upon the record of the first action, and thus elucidating the determination of the question of what was the subjectmatter covered by the judgment rendered in that action. The contention of the plaintiff was that the judgment in the first action was based on the liability of the District for the defective gas box, and was conclusive as against the defendant in this suit. The elementary rule is that for the purpose of ascertaining the subject-matter of a controversy, and fixing the scope of the thing adjudged, the entire record, including the testimony offered in the suit, may be examined. Russell v. Place, 94 U.S. 606, 609, 610; Cromwell v. County of Sac, Id. 351, 355, 356; Lewis v. Pier Co., 125 N. Y. 341, 348, 26 N. E. 301; Littleton v. Richardson, 34 N. H. 179, 188; Freem. Judgm. § 273, and authorities there cited.

4. Was the judgment against the District, rendered after notice to the gas company, and opportunity afforded it to defend, conclusive of the liability of the gas company to the District?

As a deduction from the recognized right to recover over, it is settled that, where one having such right is sued, the judgment rendered against him is conclusive upon the person liable over, provided notice be given to the latter, and full opportunity be afforded him to defend the action. There is here no question of the sufficiency of the notice, or of the ample adequacy of the opportunity given the gas company to defend the suit, had it elected to do so.

In both Chicago City v. Robbins and Robbins v. Chicago City, ubi supra, this court, after announcing the rule as to the liability over, in the language already quoted, also held that where, in the first suit, proper notice was given to the party liable over, the first judgment would be conclusive against the latter in the action to recover over. In Boston v. Worthington, 10 Gray, 496, 498, 499, the language of the court in Littleton v. Richardson, 34 N. H. 187, was quoted and adopted:

'When a person is responsible over to another, either by operation of law or by express contract, and he is duly notified of the pendency of the suit, and requested to take upon him the defense of it, he is no longer regarded as a stranger, because he has the right to appear and defend the action, and has the same means and advantages of controverting the claim as if he were the real and nominal party upon the record. In every such case, if due notice is given to such person, the judgment, if obtained without fraud or collusion, will be conclusive against him, whether he has appeared or not.'

In Oceanic Steam-Nav. Co. v. Compania Transatlantica Espanola, 144 N. Y. 663, 665, 39 N. E. 360, the rule is thus stated:

'It is sufficient that the party against whom ultimate liability is claimed is fully and fairly informed of the claim, and that the action is pending, with full opportunity to defend or to participate in the defense. If he then neglects or refuses to make any defense he may have, the judgment will bind him in the same way and to the same extent as if he had been made a party to the record. Village of Port Jervis v. First Nat. Bank, 96 N. Y. 550; City of Rochester v. Montgomery, 72 N. Y. 65; Savings Inst. v. Burdick, 87 N. Y. 40, 45; Andrews v. Gillespie, 47 N. Y. 487; Heiser v. Hatch, 86 N. Y. 614.'

The foregoing rulings are supported by many decided cases. Portland v. Richardson, 54 Me. 46; Veazie v. Railroad, 49 Me. 119; Reggio v. Braggiotti, 7 Cush. 166; Westfield v. Mayo, 122 Mass. 100; Littleton v. Richardson, 34 N. H. 179, 187, and authorities there cited; Westchester v. Apple, 35 Pa. St. 284; Catterlin v. Frankfort, 79 Ind. 547. See, also, 2 Dill. Mun. Corp. § 1035, and authorities there cited.

The contention of the plaintiff in error, however, is that, although it be conceded that the judgment rendered against the District in the first suit be conclusive, yet the judgment in this action to recover over should be reversed for the following reasons:

First, because, giving to the judgment first rendered all the effect to which it is entitled, it did not conclude the question of whether the gas company was negligent, and that, aside from the effect of the judgment, there was no evidence tending to show negligence, except the testimony of the witness Smith, which, if admissible to aid in the ascertainment of what was the thing adjudged by the judgment in the former action, yet was not competent to establish the existence of negligence as a substantive fact, apart from the probative force of the judgment itself; second, that the judgment in the first suit was not conclusive as to whether the broken brick (for which the gas company was clearly not liable) had contributed to the accident, and therefore there was error in this particular in the instruction given by the trial court to the jury.

As to the first of these two contentions, the trial court instructed the jury that, although the judgment in the first action was binding on the gas company, it was not conclusive as to the negligence of that company, but that such negligence could be inferred by the jury from the testimony of Smith, thus treating that testimony as possessing intrinsic proving power. Both these rulings were erroneous. The testimony of Smith taken in the first suit was res inter alios, and therefore incompetent against the gas company as independent testimony. The fact that it was admissible for the purpose of determining the scope of the thing adjudged in the suit in which it was given did not justify its being used for a distinct and illegal purpose. Error, however, in this particular, was in no sense prejudicial, if the judgment in the first action conclusively established the negligence of the gas company. The liability of the District for the injury inflicted by the defective gas box depended on whether it had been guilty of negligence. But the neglect of the District to repair the gas box being one of omission, as distinguished from the active doing of a negligent act, this negligence, in the absence of a statutory rule to the contrary, could only have resulted from two conditions of fact,-failure to repair after due notice of the defect, or proof of the existence of the defect for a sufficient lapse of time so as to justify the implication of knowledge and the resulting presumption of negligence. The elementary rule is thus stated in Dill. Mun. Corp. § 1025, where a copious list of adjudicated cases is found: 'Where the duty to keep its streets in safe condition rests upon the corporation, it is liable for injuries caused by its neglect or omission to keep the streets in repair, as well as for defects occasioned by the wrongful acts of others; but, as the basis of the action is negligence, notice to the corporation of the defect which caused the injury, or of facts from which notice thereof may reasonably be inferred, or proof of circumstances from which it appears that the defect ought to have been known and remedied by it, is essential to liability.'

In the action against the District there was no evidence tending to show actual notice of the uncovered gas box. Indeed, the only proof tending to show negligence was the testimony of the witness Smith that the gas box had been observed by him to be uncovered for a considerable time prior to the accident. The verdict, therefore, against the District, necessarily determined that the defect in the gas box had existed for such a length of time as to impute negligence to those whose duty it was to keep it in repair. The finding of this fact in the first action was an essential prerequisite to a judgment against the District. The length of time required to imply knowledge and negligence on the part of the District is also sufficient, in law, to imply such knowledge and negligence on the part of the gas company. It follows, therefore, that the judgment against the District conclusively established a fact from which, as the duty to repair rested on the gas company, its negligence results.

The proposition that the judgment, although conclusive, does not determine the negligence of the gas company, is a mere sophistry, since, on the one hand, it admits the estoppel resulting from the judgment, and, on the other, denies a fact upon which the judgment depends, and without which it could not exist. It is true that in Chicago City v. Robbins, ubi supra, in speaking of the conclusiveness of the judgment rendered against the city, the court said (page 423), 'Robbins is not, however, estopped from showing that he was under no obligation to keep the street in a safe condition, and that it was not through his fault the accident happened.' But in that case the liability of the city rested on actual notice of the defect in the street, and not on implied negligence, based on the continued existence of the defect which caused the injury. Therefore the essential fact on which the judgment against the city rested did not, as a legal consequence, imply negligence on the part of Robbins. Here, of course, a different state of fact gives rise to a different legal result. City of Rochester v. Montgomery, 72 N. Y. 65; Carpenter v. Pier, 30 Vt. 81, 87; Village of Port Jervis v. First Nat. Bank of Port Jervis, 96 N. Y. 550.

The error which it is asserted the trial court committed on the subject of the broken brick at the side of the gas box, and its alleged contribution to the accident, may be conceded, without creating cause for reversal. There was no evidence tending, either in the first action or in this, to show actual notice to the District of the defective brick, nor was there evidence tending to show the existence of the defect for such length of time as to impute knowledge and negligence to the District. One or the other of these conditions being essential to establish negligence, and thereby render the District liable for any accident to which the broken brick may have contributed, it follows that in neither of the actions was there any evidence which would have supported a judgment against the District because of the defective brick.

Judgment affirmed.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).