Pierce v. Tennessee Coal Iron Railroad Company

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United States Supreme Court

173 U.S. 1

Pierce  v.  Tennessee Coal Iron Railroad Company

'Pratt Mines, Ala., 4th une, 1890. Whereas, I, F. H. Pierce, while in the employ of the Tennessee Iron, Coal and Railroad Company, Pratt Mines Division, as a machinist, was seriously hurt by a trip of tram cars on the main slope of the mine, known as 'Slope No. 2,' and operated by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, under circumstances which I claim render the said company liable to me for damages; but whereas, they disclaim any liability for said accident, or the injuries to me resulting from same, and both parties being desirous of settling and compromising said matter; and whereas, the said Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company did make me a proposition on the ___ day of November, 1888, said accident having occurred on the 21st day of May, 1888, that they would furnish me such supplies from the commissary at No. 2 prison as I might choose to take, pay me regular wages while I was disabled, and give me my coal and wood for fuel at my dwelling, and the benefit of the convict garden at No. 2; and whereas, said proposition was accepted by me, and carried out by the said company; and whereas, in May, 1889, after I had resumed work, a further proposition was made to me to give me work such as I could do, paying me therefor the wages paid me before said accident (that is, $60 per month), and in addition free house rent [or, in lieu of house rent, a certain amount of supplies from the convict commissary at No. 2 prison, which supplies were to amount to about the sum paid by me for house rent]; and whereas, said agreement has been faithfully kept by both parties; and whereas, on the 4th day of June, 1890, it is mutually agreed between myself and the said company that it will be better to give me the house rent than the supplies of about equal amount from the commissary: Now, therefore, it is agreed, in view of the above propositions, which have been faithfully carried out, that my wages from this date are to be $65 a month, and in addition I am to have, free of charge, my coal and wood necessary for my household use at my dwelling, and the same benefit from the garden as is had by others who are allowed the garden privilege; and I, on my part, agree and bind myself to release the said company from any and all liability for said accident, or from the injuries resulting to me from it or from the effects of it, and agree that this is to be a full and satisfactory settlement of any and all claims which I might have against said company.'

The complaint set out the contract, except the clause above printed in brackets, and alleged that by this contract the defendant became liable to pay the plaintiff monthly during his life the wages therein stipulated, and to furnish him with coal and wood, and allow him the privilege of the garden, as therein agreed; that the plaintiff had always been ready and offered to do for the defendant such work given to him as he was able to do, and had labored at the same for such reasonable time as he was able to work and bound to work under this contract; that by the injuries received by him from the accident mentioned therein he was permanently disabled in the use of his legs and hands, and otherwise so injured as to be incapacitated to do more work than he had done and had offered to do; but that the defendant, without any reasonable ground for so doing, abandoned the contract and refused to carry it out, claiming that the defendant was under no obligation to pay to the plaintiff the wages therein stipulated longer than suited its pleasure, and had wholly and purposely disregarded and refused to abide by the obligations of the contract for the period of six months next before the commencement of the suit, and had entirely abandoned the contract and discharged the plaintiff from its service. The plaintiff claimed damages in the sum of $50,000 for the defendant's breach and abandonment of the contract.

The defendant demurred to the complaint upon the ground that the contract set out therein was one of hiring, terminable at the will of either party, and not one of hiring for l fe, as alleged in the complaint, and that it appeared from the allegations of the complaint that the defendant, in terminating the contract of hiring, had only exercised its legal right under the contract. The court sustained the demurrer, and, the plaintiff declining to amend his complaint, rendered judgment for the defendant; and the plaintiff on February 21, 1894, appealed from that judgment to the supreme court of Alabama.

The record transmitted to this court does not show any further proceedings in the supreme court of Alabama. But the official reports of its decisions show that at November term, 1895, it reversed that judgment, and remanded the case to the county court. Pierce v. Railroad Co., 110 Ala. 533, 19 South. 22. And the record before this court necessarily implies that fact, by setting forth that in March, 1896, on motion of the defendant, suggesting that from prejudice and local influence it would not be able to obtain justice in the state courts, the case was removed from the county court into the circuit court of the United States for the Southern division of the Northern district of Alabama; and a motion to remand the case to the state court was made by the plaintiff (on what ground did not appear in the record), and was overruled.

In the circuit court of the United States, on January 4, 1897, the following proceedings took place: The demurrer to the complaint was renewed by the defendant, and overruled by the court. The plaintiff then amended his complaint by inserting in the copy of the contract set forth therein the words above printed in brackets, and a demurrer to the amended complaint was filed and overruled. In answer to this complaint the defendant filed two pleas: (1) A denial of each and every allegation of the complaint. (2) 'The defendant, for further answer to the complaint, says that the plaintiff, under and by the terms of the contract set out in the complaint, contracted to perform for the defendant during the term thereof such service as he was able to perform, in consideration for the promises made by defendant therein; and the defendant avers that the plaintiff thereafter became able to perform service for the defendant, and did in fact perform such service for some time thereafter, and that while engaged in the performance of such service the plaintiff voluntarily, and without excuse therefor, refused to further perform such service as he was able to perform and was in fact performing for the defendant as required by said contract, and the defendant thereupon discharged the plaintiff from its service; and the defendant avers that the plaintiff failed to comply with the conditions imposed upon him by said contract.' The plaintiff joined issue on the first plea, and demurred to the second plea upon the ground that it did not go to the whole consideration of the contract, and was no answer to the entire action; and the court sustained his demurrer. The defendant, for further answer, and by way of recoupment, pleaded that on May 3, 1891, the plaintiff, voluntarily and without excuse, refused to perform such labor as he was able to perform and was in fact performing for the defendant as required by the contract, and since that time had continued to refuse to perform, and had not in fact performed, such service, or any part thereof, to the damage of the defendant in the sum of $50,000.

A bill of exceptions tendered by the plaintiff and allowed by the court showed that at the trial before the jury the following proceedings were had:

The plaintiff introduced and read in evidence the contract sued on, and introduced evidence tending to prove the allegations of the complaint. He also offered evidence that at the time of his discharge by the defendant from its employment in May, 1891, he was 55 years of age, and that he was then, and had since been, in good health, and addicted to no habits, of drinking or otherwise, affecting his health and expectancy of life, and introduced the American tables of mortality used by insurance companies, showing his expectan y of life at the time of his discharge and at the time of the trial.

But the court ruled that no recovery could be allowed on the contract, beyond the installments of wages due and in default up to the date of the trial, and, upon the defendant's motion, excluded all evidence of the plaintiff's age, health, and expectancy of life, 'on the ground that it was immaterial and irrelevant, and because damages for the expectancy of life was a matter too vague and uncertain to be allowed.'

The plaintiff duly excepted to the ruling and to the exclusion of evidence, and, to present the same point, asked the court to give, and duly excepted to its refusal to give, the following instruction to the jury: 'If the defendant, after making the contract sued on, and before the suit, refused further to pay the plaintiff, and to furnish the articles stipulated to be furnished, and refused to employ the plaintiff, and discharged him, the plaintiff is entitled to the full benefit of his contract, which is the present value of the money agreed to be paid and the articles to be furnished under the contract for the period of his life, if his disability is permanent, less such sum as the jury may find the plaintiff may be able to earn in the future, and may have been able heretofore to earn, and less such loss as the defendant may have sustained from the loss of the plaintiff's service without the defendant's fault.'

The defendant also tendered and was allowed a bill of exceptions, presenting substantially, though in diffeferent form, the questions involved in the plaintiff's case, and the contents of which, therefore, need not be particularly stated.

The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the sum of $5,893, upon whic judgment was rendered. Each party sued out a writ of error from the circuit court of appeals for the Fifth circuit.

That court was of opinion that the contract sued on was for 'an employment by the month, and therefore, like every other such employment, subject to be discontinued, at the will of either party, at the expiration of any monty, or at any time, for adequate cause,' and, consequently, that there was error in overruling the demurrer to the complaint, and upon that ground, without passing upon any other question in the case, reversed the judgment of the circuit court of the United States, and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings, Judge Pardee dissenting. 52 U.S. App. 355, 365, 26 C. C. A. 632, and 81 Fed. 814. The plaintiff thereupon applied for and obtained a writ of certiorari from this court. 168 U.S. 709, 18 Sup. Ct. 950.

W. A. Gunter, for petitioner.

Walker Percy and Wm. I. Grubb, for respondent.

Mr. Justice GRAY, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.


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).