Proprietors of Charles River Bridge v. Proprietors of Warren Bridge (1837)

US Constitutional Law

Charles River Bridge
‘City Scape (From Across the Charles River, Boston)’ by Frederick Kubitz

The suggestion of implied terms and the dutiful exercise of police powers, lie central to a case involving contracting parties whose pecuniary expectations lay in direct conflict with the need to serve the public interest, and who in turn held any notion of progress unconstitutional to the last.

Having been granted an Act of incorporation by the State for the purposes of constructing a bridge over the Charles River, Massachusetts in 1785, the plaintiffs in error were required to exact a toll on those travelling the bridge for a period not longer than forty years, while in 1792 the legislature extended the toll agreement by a further thirty years on the proviso that the bridge would then become the property of the State, and the tolls would cease, to which the plaintiffs in error acquiesced and undertook their prescribed duties without complaint or failure.

However in 1828, the State commissioned the defendants in error to build another bridge some 800 metres downriver, while on that occasion assuming full title some six years after its opening and application of a similar toll, upon which the plaintiffs in error quickly filed an injunctive suit in the Massachusetts Supreme Court on grounds that the planned construction of the second bridge was a breach of contract between the legislature and themselves, and was therefore violative of art. 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which reads in relevant part that:

“No State shall….pass any Bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.…”

In the first instance the court dismissed the suit, and so the matter was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court under writ of error, whereupon the Court took the opportunity to review the argument and the facts at hand, while the plaintiffs in error fundamentally argued that when agreeing to commission the erection of the second bridge the State had by implication, retroactively controverted their express agreement to allow the plaintiffs in error a continued right to revenue and profit for the full seventy years.

Here the Court turned first to Satterlee v. Mathewson, in which it held that:

“[R]etrospective laws which do not impair the obligation of contracts, or partake of the character of ex post facto laws, are not condemned or forbidden….”

And that:

“There is nothing in the constitution of the United States, which forbids the legislature of a State to exercise judicial functions.”

While the Court further noted how in Watson v. Mercer it had held that:

“The constitution of the United States does not prohibit the states from passing retrospective laws generally; but only ex post facto laws.”

And so the Court reasoned that while the agreement between the State and the plaintiffs in error was one binding upon both parties, there was no single mention of any right to charge tolls, and so when the original Act expired, so too did the privilege to incur costs upon the community, while the Court also noted that the argument was one based solely upon implied rights alone, and how there was simply no written evidence upon which to bring a claim, while also referring to Providence Bank v. Billings, wherein it had held that:

“[T]he constitutionality of a measure depends, not on the degree of its exercise, but on its principle.”

And so on this occasion the plan and agreement to build the first bridge was by all rights fulfilled, therefore when allowing for population and socio-economic changes faced, it was nothing less than prudent governance to erect another bridge that allowed for free travel to the benefit of those using it, thus the legislature were merely exercising their police powers in the interests of its people, whereupon the Court upheld the Massachusetts Supreme Court judgment in full, while holding that:

“[A] state law may be retrospective in its character, and may divest vested rights, and yet not violate the constitution of the United States, unless it also impairs the obligation of a contract.”

Moore v. Elmer (1901)

US Contract Law

Moore v. Elmer
‘Clairvoyant-Veritas’ by Gabriel Von Max

A promise to pay while absent of any consideration may at first blush appear to be enforceable, however the eyes of the law see things in quite a different light, as was found in this rather bizarre suit between a clairvoyant and the administrators of an estate.

For reasons best known to themselves, the plaintiff and former client had somehow entered into a bargain, whereby a written statement in January 1898 expressed that:

“In consideration of business and test sittings received from Madame Sesemore, the clairvoyant, otherwise known as Mrs. Josephene L. Moore on numerous occasions I the undersigned do hereby agree to give the above named Josephene or her heirs, if she is not alive, the balance of her mortgage note which is the Herman E. Bogardus mortgage note of Jan. 5, 1893, and the interest on same on or after the last day of Jan. 1900, if my death occurs before then which she has this day predicted and claims to be the truth, and which I the undersigned strongly doubt. 

Wherein if she is right I am willing to make a recompense to her as above stated, but not payable unless death occurs before 1900. Willard Elmer.”

And so upon his death, the plaintiff sued for recovery in the Hampden County Superior Court, while his various family members argued that the claim was void for want of consideration, after which the court dismissed the suit and the matter was argued again before the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Here the court turned first to Chamberlain v. Whitford, wherein it had held that:

“An executed and past consideration is not sufficient to support a subsequent promise. It is not enough to show that a service has been rendered, and that it was beneficial to the party sought to be charged, unless it was rendered at his express request, or under such circumstances that the law would imply a request.”

While in Dearborn v. Brown the court had earlier held that:

“[T]he past performance of services constitutes no consideration even for an express promise, unless they were performed at the express or implied request of the defendant, or unless they were done in performance of some duty or obligation resting on the defendant.”

To which it had been evident that no money had been exchanged for the readings, nor any express terms set out during their meetings. And so when summarising the fruitlessness of the claim, the court finally relied upon Johnson v. Kimball in which it had later held that:

“An executed gift is neither consideration for an express contract nor a ground for implying one as a fiction of law.”

Thus the claim was one without merit and so the suit was again dismissed to the relief of the surviving parties and the dismay of a wanton clairvoyant, although one might have expected her to learn of the outcome prior to any litigation.

Brown v. Kendall (1850)

US Tort Law

Brown v. Kendall
‘Dog Fight’ by Vladimir I

Burden of proof in an action for trespass and assault and battery falls subject to examination when after a fight between two dogs, the plaintiff is left seriously injured and in want of redress.

In 1850, the two parties were caught up in a vicious dog fight involving their respective animals, and while the now deceased defendant took deliberate steps to separate them, the plaintiff was accidentally struck in the eye by the defendant’s walking stick, as he stepped backwards during the melee.

In response, the plaintiff commenced a suit for tortious damages for trespass vi et armis (trespass by force and arms) on the supposition that the injurious blow was a deliberate act, and that the carelessness and neglect of the defendant was the cause, and not the location of the plaintiff when the stick was drawn back.

As was common at the time of litigation, Chapter 93 § 7 of the Massachusetts Revised Statutes allowed clams for assault and battery to stand, despite the death of the accused, and so following his passing, the defendant was represented by his executrix, whereupon the district court judge instructed the jury to decide upon the principle that:

“If the jury believe, that it was the duty of the defendant to interfere, then the burden of proving negligence on the part of the defendant, and ordinary care on the part of the plaintiff, is on the plaintiff. If the jury believe, that the act of interference in the fight was unnecessary, then the burden of proving extraordinary care on the part of the defendant, or want of ordinary care on the part of the plaintiff, is on defendant.”

On this occasion, the jury returned a verdict in favour of the plaintiff, while the executrix sought to challenge the finding in the Massachusetts Supreme Court, on the insistence that the injury was accidental and potentially unavoidable on the part of her late husband.

Here, the court relied upon Powers v. Russell, in which Shaw CJ had held that in instances:

“[W]here the party having the burden of proof gives competent and prima facie evidence of a fact, and the adverse party, instead of producing proof which would go to negative the same proposition of fact, proposes to show another and a distinct proposition which avoids the effect of it, there the burden of proof shifts, and rests upon the party proposing to show the latter fact.”

Which indicated that unless the plaintiff could show sound reasoning why the injury arose through negligence, there was insufficient grounds for a jury to decide with confidence, thus the court was now convinced that when choosing to separate the two animals, the deceased was, by virtue of his avoiding potential harm to his dog, acting lawfully and within his rights as an owner, and so while moving backwards with his fullest attentions on the fight, it was held by the court that:

“If the act of hitting the plaintiff was unintentional, on the part of the defendant, and done in the doing of a lawful act, then the defendant was not liable, unless it was done in the want of exercise of due care adapted to the exigency of the case, and therefore such want of due care became part of the plaintiff’s case, and the burden of proof was on the plaintiff to establish it.”

Upon which the previous verdict was dismissed and a new trial ordered on the pretence that unless irrefutable evidence could provide that the defendant had been wilfully negligent in an act of carelessness, there was simply no legal basis for recovery by the plaintiff.