McAfee v. Crofford/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

54 U.S. 447

McAfee  v.  Crofford


This case is before us on a writ of error, to the District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

A judgment was obtained in favor of the Commercial Bank of Manchester against James T. Crofford and Morgan McAfee, in the State Court of Tallahatchie county, Mississippi, the 24th of November, 1840, for the sum of $4,143.93, on which an execution was issued, and levied on sundry slaves of Crofford, who owed the debt; McAfee, the other defendant, being his security, a delivery-bond for the property was executed, which was forfeited the 22d of November, 1841, by which forfeiture the bond had the effect of a judgment. On this latter judgment an execution was issued, which was levied on twenty-one negroes owned by Crofford, all of whom, except three, were sold by the sheriff for $6,132.

Some time after the first levy, it appears that Crofford removed with his slaves across the Mississippi, and settled on a plantation on that river, in Arkansas, not far from his former residence in Mississippi.

A short time before the last levy, Morgan McAfee, with an armed force, in the absence of Crofford, crossed the river, seized, from day to day, twenty-one of the negroes on his plantation, and brought them into Mississippi. The other slaves of Crofford were alarmed and absconded, and were not reclaimed before the lapse of from four to six weeks. The overseer of Crofford remonstrated, and some steps were taken to arrest the proceedings of McAfee, but his force was too strong, and he threatened to kill any one who should interfere with him in taking off the negroes. For this trespass an action was brought against the plaintiffs in error. In the declaration, it was alleged, that by reason of the trespass, the plaintiff lost the services of thirty negro men and as many women, &c., which, through fear, absconded, besides the number taken by McAfee, and that he was subjected to great expense in reclaiming them; that by taking the slaves, chasing, and frightening the others from his farm and wood-yard and from and about the business of the plaintiff, he was greatly damaged, &c. The defendants pleaded not guilty, &c. A verdict for $10,613 was rendered by the jury, on which a judgment was entered. To reverse that judgment the writ of error was brought.

The exceptions arise out of the rulings of the court and the charge to the jury.

The trespass was proved as charged in the declaration. The party were several days in searching for and arresting the negroes, and all on the plantation not taken were frightened and fled.

The male slaves were employed in cutting cord-wood, and supplying Crofford's wood-yard. He had, at the time of the trespass, it was proved, from eighteen hundred to two thousand cords of wood cut on the low ground back from the river, which was worth two dollars per cord, and sold at the yard for two dollars and fifty cents; the hauling cost fifty cents per cord; that the river became swollen by rain, and having no hands to remove the wood to the yard, much of it was carried off by the flood, and what remained, was so injured by being under water as to make it unsalable; that having no hands to attend the crop, the horses, mules, and other stock of the neighborhood, broke into the cornfield and destroyed a large part of it; that corn was worth fifty cents a bushel at that time. There were one hundred and twenty acres in corn, which, with proper attention and protection, would have yielded forty bushels to the acre.

The defendant offered in evidence the judgment of the Commercial Bank against Crofford, as principal, and himself as surety, and a receipt for the payment of the judgment, amounting to the sum of $6,233.38, in mitigation of the damages claimed on account of the trespass, which, though objected to by the plaintiff, was admitted.

The evidence was admissible on two grounds. First, to explain the motive of the plaintiffs in error in committing the trespass, and thereby, in some degree, to mitigate the damages claimed. Second, to reduce or abate from the damages the amount paid in discharge of the judgment, not as an offset, but in mitigation of the injury done. This right resulted from the relation between the parties. McAfee was a co-defendant with Crofford in the judgment, but he was security only, and he had a right to expect, from the forthcoming bond and the assurances of Crofford, that the negroes first levied on would be delivered up in satisfaction of the second execution. In an answer in chancery, he alleged that the bank judgment had been satisfied. A stranger could not take the property of his neighbor, have it sold under process, and apply the proceeds in discharging the debts of his neighbor, and then claim the right to have such payments received as a set-off, or in mitigation of the damages done by the trespass.

The plaintiff below then introduced the transcripts of two judgments in the District Court against Morgan McAfee, one in favor of Crofford, the other assigned to him, amounting to twenty-one hundred dollars and upwards, which, though objected to by the defendants, was admitted by the court. For what purpose this evidence was introduced was not stated; and under such circumstances, if the records of the judgments were admissible for any purpose, the exception to the evidence cannot be sustained.

It was proved, that at New Orleans, before the trespass was committed, McAfee agreed with Crofford to return to Mississippi and make an arrangement with the bank to give one, two, and three years, for the payment of the judgment against Crofford and himself; and he agreed to credit on said judgment the above judgments against himself.

We think that those judgments were properly admitted as evidence, because they conduced to show that Crofford, in removing with his slaves to Arkansas, was less blamable than charged by the defendant McAfee, as he had grounds to believe that a part of the bank judgment would be paid by McAfee, and that an indulgence of some years would be obtained, for the payment of the balance.

The judgments being admissible on this ground, it is unnecessary to inquire whether they were not evidence to reduce the bank judgment paid by McAfee, under his agreement. This point might have been made, if the court had been requested to instruct the jury that this effect could not be given to the evidence by the jury. The judgment being admissible for the purpose first stated, it is unnecessary to inquire, if it were practicable to do so, which it is not, how the evidence was applied by the jury.

The record of certain proceedings against the Commercial Bank of Manchester, in the nature of a quo warranto, was offered by the plaintiff in evidence, to show that the bank was enjoined from proceeding to collect debts. This proceeding was had in the Circuit Court of Yazoo county. An injunction was issued as stated. And at November term, 1846, the court decided on the demurrers filed in favor of the bank, from which decision an appeal was taken to the High Court of Errors and Appeals of the State. The court admitted the evidence, overruling the objections made to it.

These proceedings, it is presumed, were pending in the Court of Appeals at the time the trespass was committed, as the contrary does not appear; but it is not perceived that the evidence could have had any other effect than to rebut the mitigating circumstances relied on by the defendants. In this view the evidence was admissible.

The loss of the services of the slaves, by the trespass, necessarily resulting from the abduction of a part of them, and driving off the others, are clearly within the rule of damages in trespass; and we think the loss of the cord-wood, as proved, and the injury to the corn-crop, were also within it.

It is argued, that unless the inclosure for the protection of the crop was such as the law required, no damages could be allowed for the trespasses charged, and that the owners of the trespassing animals were liable, and consequently the plaintiffs in error were not liable.

Whether there was, at the time, a law in Arkansas regulating inclosures, we have not examined, as it is a matter which can have no influence in the case. The question was fairly submitted to the jury, whether, under the facts and circumstances proved, the injury to the corn-crop resulted from the loss of the hands. This was a matter of fact for the jury, whether the fence of the plaintiff was good or bad; if, by reason of the loss of the slaves, the breaches in the inclosure could not be repaired, or the plaintiff was unable to guard his field, as was his custom, was an inquiry for the jury; and in making up their verdict, they must have considered the facts and circumstances connected with this branch of the case.

The same remarks apply to the cord-wood. Had the plaintiff not been deprived of his hands, he might have removed, sold, or in some other manner secured, the wood from being floated off by the flood. In regard to the corn and the wood, if the damage was a consequence, which necessarily followed the loss of the hands, the plaintiffs in error were liable. The instructions of the court were general and correct. 5 Phil. Ev. 188, 189; Barnum v. Vanduson, 16 Conn. 200; Carrington v. Taylor, 11 East, 571; 2 Greenleaf, Co. sect. 253, 254, 268 and 270, 272, 635 a.

The trespass was of an aggavated nature; notwithstanding the mitigating facts set up by the defendants, it was lawless and wholly inexcusable. It was a resort to physical force in defiance of law, and under such circumstances as to endanger life and property. Such a procedure should be reprehended by every good citizen. It gives a high claim to the injured party for exemplary damages. We think there was no error in the proceedings, consequently, the judgment of the District Court is affirmed with costs.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Mississippi, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this court, that the judgment of the said District Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby, affirmed, with costs and damages, at the rate of six per centum per annum.

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).