Transportation Company v. Chicago/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

99 U.S. 635

Transportation Company  v.  Chicago

We are of opinion that no error has been shown in this record, though the assignments are very numerous. The action was case to recover damages for injuries alleged to have been sustained by the plaintiffs in consequence of the action of the city authorities in constructing a tunnel or passageway along the line of La Salle Street and under the Chicago River, where it crosses that street. The plaintiffs were the lessees of a lot bounded on the east by the street, and on the south by the river, and the principal injury of which they complain is, that by the operations of the city they were deprived of access to their premises, both on the side of the river and on that of the street, during the prosecution of the work. It is not claimed that the obstruction was a permanent one, or that it was continued during a longer time than was necessary to complete the improvement. Nor is it contended that there was unreasonable delay in pushing the work to completion, or that the coffer-dam constructed in the river, extending some twenty-five or thirty feet in front of the plaintiff's lot, was not necessary, indeed indispensable, for the construction of the tunnel.

The case has been argued on the assumption that the erection of the coffer-dam, and the necessary excavations in the street, constituted a public nuisance, causing special damage to the plaintiffs, beyond those incident to the public at large, and hence, it is inferred, the city is responsible to them for the injurious consequences resulting therefrom. The answer to this is that the assumption is unwarranted. That cannot be a nuisance, such as to give a common-law right of action, which the law authorizes. We refer to an action at common law such as this is. A legislature may and often does authorize and even direct acts to be done which are harmful to individuals, and which without the authority would be nuisances; but in such a case, if the statute be such as the legislature has power to pass, the acts are lawful, and are not nuisances, unless the power has been exceeded. In such grants of power a right to compensation for consequential injuries caused by the authorized erections may be given to those who suffer, but then the right is a creature of the statute. It has no existence without it. If this were not so, the suffering party would be entitled to repeated actions until an abatement of the erections would be enforced, or perhaps he might restrain them by injunction.

Here the tunnel of which the plaintiffs complain, or rather its construction, was authorized by an act of the legislature of the State, and directed by an ordinance of the city councils. This we do not understand to be denied, and it certainly cannot be. The State, and the city councils, as its agents, had full power over the highways of the city, to improve them for the uses for which they were made highways, and the construction of the tunnel was an exercise of that power. Since La Salle Street was extended across the river, the city not only had the power, but it was its duty, to provide for convenience of passage. This it could do either by the erection of a bridge, or by the construction of a tunnel under the river and along the line of the street. And the grant of power by the legislature to build a bridge or construct a tunnel carried with it, of course, all that was necessary for the exercise of the power. We do not understand this to be controverted by the plaintiffs in error. Their argument is, that though the city had the legal right to construct the tunnel, and to do what was necessary for its construction, subject to the condition that in doing the work there should be no unnecessary interference with private property, yet it was liable to make compensation for the consequential damages caused to persons specially injured. To this we cannot assent.

It is immaterial whether the fee of the street was in the State or in the city or in the adjoining lot-holders. If in the latter, the State had an easement to repair and improve the street over its entire length and breadth, to adapt it to easy and safe passage.

It is undeniable that in making the improvement of which the plaintiffs complain the city was the agent of the State, and performing a public duty imposed upon it by the legislature; and that persons appointed or authorized by law to make or improve a highway are not answerable for consequential damages, if they act within their jurisdiction and with care and skill, is a doctrine almost universally accepted alike in England and in this country. It was asserted unqualifiedly in The Governor and Company of the British Cast-Plate Manufacturers v. Meredith, 4 Durnf. & E. 794; in Sutton v. Clarke, 6 Taun. 28; and in Boulton v. Crowther, 2 Barn. & Cres. 703. It was asserted in Green v. The Borough of Reading, 9 Watts (Pa.), 382; O'Connor v. Pittsburg, 18 Pa. St. 187; in Callendar v. Marsh, 1 Pick. (Mass.) 418; as well as by the courts of numerous other States. It was asserted in Smith v. The Corporation of Washington (20 How. 135), in this court; and it has been held by the Supreme Court of Illinois. The decisions in Ohio, so far as we know, are the solitary exceptions. The doctrine, however it may at times appear to be at variance with natural justice, rests upon the soundest legal reason. The State holds its highways in trust for the public. Improvements made by its direction or by its authority are its acts, and the ultimate responsibility, of course, should rest upon it. But it is the prerogative of the State to be exempt from coercion by suit, except by its own consent. This prerogative would amount to nothing if it does not protect the agents for improving highways which the State is compelled to employ. The remedy, therefore, for a consequential injury resulting from the State's action through its agents, if there be any, must be that, and that only, which the legislature shall give. It does not exist at common law. The decisions to which we have referred were made in view of Magna Charta and the restriction to be found in the constitution of every State, that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation being made. But acts done in the proper exercise of governmental powers, and not directly encroaching upon private property, though their consequences may impair its use, are universally held not to be a taking within the meaning of the constitutional provision. They do not entitle the owner of such property to compensation from the State or its agents, or give him any right of action. This is supported by an immense weight of authority. Those who are curious to see the decisions will find them collected in Cooley on Constitutional Limitations, page 542 and notes. The extremest qualification of the doctrine is to be found, perhaps, in Pumpelly v. Green Bay Company, 13 Wall. 166, and in Eaton v. Boston, Concord, & Montreal Railroad Co., 51 N. H. 504. In those cases it was held that permanent flooding of private property may be regarded as a 'taking.' In those cases there was a physical invasion of the real estate of the private owner, and a practical ouster of his possession. But in the present case there was no such invasion. No entry was made upon the plaintiffs' lot. All that was done was to render for a time its use more inconvenient.

The present Constitution of Illinois took effect on the 8th of August, 1870, after the work of constructing the tunnel had been substantially completed. It ordains that private property shall not be 'taken or damaged' for public use without just compensation. This is an extension of the common provision for the protection of private property. But it has no application to this case, as was decided by the Supreme Court of the State in Chicago v. Rumsey, recently decided, and reported in Chicago Legal News, vol. x. p. 333. That case also decides that the city is not liable for consequential damages resulting from an improvement made in the street, the fee of which is in the city, provided the improvement had the sanction of the legislature. It also decides that La Salle Street is such a street, and declares that a recovery of such damages by an adjacent lot-holder has been denied by the settled law of the State up to the adoption of the present Constitution. There would appear, therefore, to be little left in this case for controversy.

It is insisted, however, that the plaintiffs may recover for the obstruction to the access of their lot, caused by the coffer-dam in the river. It is admitted that the dam was necessary to enable the city to construct the tunnel under the river; and it is not complained that it was unskilfully built, or that it was kept in the stream longer than the necessities of the work required, but it is contended that neither the State nor the city had any right to obstruct passage on the river at all. Yet the river is a highway, a State highway as well as a national. It has long been held that navigable rivers wholly within a State are not outside of State jurisdiction so long as Congress does not interfere. An abridgment of the rights of those who have been accustomed to use them, unless it comes in conflict with the Constitution or a law of the United States, is an affair between the government of the State and its citizens, of which this court can take no cognizance. Wilson v. The Black Bird Creek Marsh Co., 2 Pet. 250. In numerous instances, States have authorized obstructions in navigable streams. They have authorized the erection of bridges, the piers of which have been more or less impediments to navigation. In this case the coffer-dam was only a temporary obstruction. It was no physical encroachment upon the plaintiffs' property, and it was maintained only so long as it was needed for the public improvement. The tunnel could not have been constructed without it. We cannot doubt that it was lawfully placed where it was, and having thus been, that the city is not responsible in damages for having erected and maintained it while discharging the duty imposed by the legislature, the obstruction not having been permanent or unreasonably prolonged.

We have examined the decisions of the courts of Illinois, and others to which we have been referred by the plaintiffs in error, but in none of them was it decided that a riparian owner on a navigable stream, or that an adjoiner on a public highway, can maintain a suit at common law against public agents to recover consequential damages resulting from obstructing a stream or highway in pursuance of legislative authority, unless that authority has been transcended, or unless there was a wanton injury inflicted, or carelessness, negligence, or want of skill in causing the obstruction.

Very many of the decisions relied upon were cases in which it appeared that the acts complained of as having wrought injurious consequences were done by private individuals, for their own benefit, and without sufficient legislative authority. The distinction between cases of that kind and such as the present is very obvious. It was well stated by Gibbs, C. J., in Sutton v. Clarke (supra), which, as we have seen, was decided on the ground that the defendant was acting under the authority of an act of Parliament, deriving no advantage to himself personally, and acting to the best of his skill and within the scope of his authority, and so was not liable for consequential damages. 'This case,' said the Chief Justice, 'is totally unlike that of the individual who for his own benefit makes an improvement on his own land according to his best skill and diligence, not foreseeing it will produce injury to his neighbor; if he thereby, though unwittingly, injure his neighbor, he is liable. The resemblance fails in this most important point, that his act is not done for a public purpose but for private emolument. Here the defendant is not a volunteer: he executes a duty imposed upon him by the legislature, which he is bound to execute.'

The observations we have made cover the whole case as made for the plaintiffs in error, except the point presented by the sixteenth assignment. That was not mentioned in the argument, but we will not overlook it.

There was evidence at the trial that during the progress of the necessary excavation of La Salle Street a portion of the walls of the plaintiffs' buildings on the lot cracked and sunk. This was caused by the caving in of the excavation in the street, the timbers used for bracing the sides having given way. In reference to this testimony the court instructed the jury that if they were satisfied from the evidence that the sinking of the wall, or rather the cracking of the wall, was due to the weight of the wall upon the selvage or portion of the earth which was left, and not to the removal of the material which was taken out of the street, that is, from the pit, the defendants were not liable. If they were satisfied that if the wall had not stood upon the plaintiffs' lot where it did there would have been no change in the level of the ground there, but that the change in the level which caused the deflection of the wall was due to the weight of the wall resting upon the earth after the excavation was made, then the defendant was not liable for that.

We think this instruction was entirely right. The general rule may be admitted that every land-owner has a right to have his land preserved unbroken, and that an adjoining owner excavating on his own land is subject to this restriction, that he must not remove the earth so near to the land of his neighbor that his neighbor's soil will crumble away under its own weight and fall upon his land. But this right of lateral support extends only to the soil in its natural condition. It does not protect whatever is placed upon the soil increasing the downward and lateral pressure. If it did, it would put it in the power of a lot-owner, by erecting heavy buildings on his lot, to greatly abridge the right of his neighbor to use his lot. It would make the rights of the prior occupant greatly superior to those of the latter. Wyatt v. Harrison, 3 Barn. & Adol. 871; Lasala v. Holbrook, 4 Paige (N. Y.), 169; Washburn, Easements, c. 4, sect. 1.

Judgment affirmed.


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).