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Hinckley v. Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Company/Opinion of the Court

< Hinckley v. Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Company

United States Supreme Court

121 U.S. 264

Hinckley  v.  Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Company


On the special findings, the only question open for review is whether the facts found are sufficient to support the judgment. There can be no question that, on those facts, the defendant is liable in damages for a breach of the contract. It is provided in the contract that the rails are 'to be drilled as may be directed.' The circuit court finds that it appears from the proof, aside from the provision in the written contract in regard to drilling directions, 'that it was usual and customary for the purchaser of steel rails to give directions as to the drilling thereof;' that each railroad has its own special rules for dilling; that the drilling of the rails is considered in the trade as a part of the work of manufacture, and a part of the duty of the manufacturer, in order to fully complete the rails for use; that, by four letters, written in April, 1882, by the agents of the plaintiff to the defendant, and which letters were duly received by the defendant before May, 1882, he was requested to furnish drilling directions for the 1,000 tons of rails to be delivered in May, under the contract; that he neglected to comply with that request, and also notified the plaintiff that he was not then prepared to receive the rails which, by the contract, were to be delivered in May; that in June the plaintiff again asked for drilling directions from the defendant, in respect both to the 1,000 tons, and to the 2,500 tons to be delivered in July, but the defendant neglected to give such drilling directions; and that, in the latter part of July, he notified the plaintiff, in substance, that he would not perform the contract. The circuit court further finds that, by reason of the repeated statements of the defendant that he was not ready to give drilling directions, not ready to use the rails, and not ready to accept them, the plaintiff postponed the rolling of them, and never rolled any rails to be delivered on the contract, but was at all times during May, July, and August, 1882, ready and able to fulfill the contract and make the rails, and the same would have been ready for delivery as called for by the contract, if the defendant had furnished drilling directions. and had not stated to the agents of the plaintiff that he was not ready to furnish the drilling directions, and not ready to accept the rails; and that, on or about the fifteenth of September, 1882, he was formally requested to furnish drilling directions and to accept the rails, and replied to such request that he should decline to take any rails under the contract, and had made arrangements to purchase rails of others at a lower price. The circuit court also finds that the defendant, by requesting the plaintiff to postpone the delivery of the rails, and by notifying the plaintiff that he was not ready to accept and pay for them, excused the plaintiff from actually manufacturing them and tendering them to the defendant. This conclusion is entirely warranted by the facts found, and, on those facts, the defendant must be held liable in damages. The only other question open on the findings is as to the proper rule of damages.

The circuit court finds that it would have cost the plaintiff $50 per ton to have manufactured and delivered the rails called for by the contract, according to its terms; that the profits of the plaintiff, if the conduct of the defendant had not prevented it from fulfilling the contract, would have been $8 per ton on each of the 6,000 tons, being $48,000; and that the plaintiff manufactured and sold to other persons 4,000 tons of rails from the materials purchased by it with which to perform the contract with the defendant, and received for such rails $54.60 per ton, and made a profit of $1.60 per ton on the 4,000 tons, being a profit, in all, of $6,400. Deducting this $6,400 from the $48,000, leaves $41,600, for which amount the judgment was finally entered.

The defendant contends that the plaintiff should have manufactured the rails and tendered them to the defendant, and, upon his refusal to accept and pay for them, should have sold them in the market at Chicago, and held the defendant responsible for the difference between what they would have brought on such sale and the contract price. But we think no such rule is applicable to this case. This was a contract for the manufacture of an article, and not for the sale of an existing article. By reason of the facts found as to the conduct and action of the defendant, the plaintiff was excused from actually manufacturing the rails, and the rule of damages applicable to the case of the refusal of a purchaser to take an existing article is not applicable to a case like the present. The proposition that, after the defendant had, for his own purposes, induced the plaintiff to delay the execution of the contract until after the thirty-first of August, 1882, and had thereafter refused to take any rails under the contract, the plaintiff should still have gone on and made the 6,000 tons of rails and sold them in the market for the defendant's account, in order to determine the amount of its recovery against the defendant, can find no countenance from a court of justice.

It is found by the circuit court that, immediately after the making of the contract, and before the time to begin its execution, the plaintiff purchased the requisite amount of material from which to manufacture the 6,000 tons of rails; that, after the purchase of such supplies there was a decline in their value before the time arrived for the delivery of any part of the rails; and that lower prices for such supplies ruled during May, June, July, and August, 1882. It is also to be inferred, from the price at which the 4,000 tons of rails were sold by the plaintiff, that the market price of rails declined below the price named in the contract; and the reason assigned by the defendant, in September, 1882, for not taking any rails under the contract, was, that he had made arrangements to purchase rails of others at a lower price. Under these circumstances, the defendant is estopped from insisting that the plaintiff should have undertaken the risk and expense of actually making ands elling the rails. These considerations also show that the rule of damages adopted by the circuit court was the proper one. It was in accordance with the rule laid down by this court in Philadelphia, W. & B. R. Co. v. Howard, 13 How. 307. In that case a contractor for the building of a railroad sued the company for its breach. On the question of damages this court said, (page 344:) 'It must be admitted that actual damages were all that could lawfully be given in an action of covenant, even if the company had been guilty of fraud. But it by no means follows that the profits are not to be allowed, understanding, as we must, the term 'profits,' in this instruction, as meaning the gain which the plaintiff would have made if he had been permitted to complete his contract. Actual damages clearly include the direct and actual loss which the plaintiff sustains propter rem ipsam non habitam. And, in case of a contract like this, that loss is, among other things, the difference between the cost of coing the work and the price to be paid for it. This difference is the inducement and real consideration which causes the contractor to enter into the contract. For this he expends his time, exerts his skill, uses his capital, and assumes the risks which attend the enterprise. And to deprive him of it, when the party has broken the contract and unlawfully put an end to the work, would be unjust. There is no rule of law which requires us to inflict this injustice. Wherever profits are spoken of as not a subject of damages, it will be found that something contingent upon future bargains or speculations or states of the market are referred to, and not the difference between the agreed price of something contracted for and its ascertainable value or cost. See Masterton v. Mayor of Brooklyn, 7 Hill, 61. and cases there referred to. We hold it to be a clear rule that the gain or profit of which the contractor was deprived by the refusal of the company to allow him to proceed with and complete the work, was a proper subject of damages.'

In U.S. v. Speed, 8 Wall. 77, where the defendant agreed to pack a specified number of hogs for the plaintiff, and made all his preparations to do so, and was ready to do so, but the defendant refused to furnish the hogs to be packed, this court, citing with approval Masterton v. Mayor of Brooklyn, held that the measure of damages was the difference between the cost of doing the work and the price agreed to be paid for it, 'making reasonable deduction for the less time engaged, and for release from the care, trouble, risk, and responsibility attending a full execution of the contract.' These views were again approved by this court in U.S. v. Beham, 110 U.S. 338, 4 Sup. Ct. Rep. 81.

In the present case the ability of the plaintiff to fulfill the contract at all times is found as a fact by the circuit court, as also the fact that, by reason of the defendant's refusal to accept the rails, the plaintiff was obliged to stop its mill for about three weeks, in August, 1882. The defendant received the benefit of all the mitigation of damages which, upon the facts found, he was entitled to claim, and the benefit of all the profits made by the plaintiff which could properly be regarded as a substitute for the profits it would have received had its contract with the defendant been carried out. The defendant objects that, within the statement of the rule in U.S. v. Speed, there was no deduction made in this case for the time saved, and the care, trouble, risk, and responsibility avoided by the plaintiff by not fully executing the contract; but there are no findings of fact which raise any such question. The finding is that it would have cost the plaintiff $50 per ton to have manufactured and delivered the rails called for by the contract, according to its terms. Under this finding, it must be held that every proper element of cost entered into the $50; and it was for the defendant to have requet ed findings which would authorize an increase of that sum as cost.

There is a bill of exceptions in the case, on which two questions are raised by the defendant as to the admission of testimony. The contract between the parties was negotiated by C. H. Odell, who signed it as broker, between whom and the defendant the correspondence thereafter, down to and including the first of May, 1882, was carried on, Odell acting fot the plaintiff. He made the contract under special instructions, his authority being limited to that of a sales agent. On his examination as a witness at the trial, he testified that all of his communications with the plaintiff in regard to the business with the defendant were in writing or by telegram. He also testified, without objection, that he kept the plaintiff fully advised of his correspondence with the defendant concerning the rails. H. P. Smith, the business manager of the plaintiff, was then called as a witness for the plaintiff, and was asked if the plaintiff was advised of the correspondence between Odell and the defendant, which had been read in evidence, and if Odell's actions were approved by the witness as manager of the plaintiff. To this the defendant objected, on the ground that the communications between Odell and the plaintiff consisted of letters and telegrams, which were the only competent evidence of the contents thereof. The court overruled the objection, and the witness stated that the company was advised of the correspondence and actions of Odell, and fully approved and ratified the same. The defendant excepted to the decision admitting the evidence. We see no objection to the admission of this evidence, independently of the fact that Odell had, without objection, testified to substantially the same thing. The defendant, in his correspondence with Odell, all of which is set forth in the bill of exceptions, treated Odell as representing the plaintiff, and cannot now be heard to question his authority to do so, or to demand further evidence of such an authority, or of the adoption by the plaintiff of what Odell was doing, saying, and asking on behalf of the plaintiff. The question asked of Smith, as to whether he, as manner of the plaintiff, approved of Odell's actions, and the answer he made, were therefore unnecessary, and could not affect the merits of the case.

Smith was further asked to state in detail the elements of the cost of rolling the rails in question. He produced a memorandum showing items taken from the plaintiff's books, which, added together, exhibited the cost, in August, 1882, of munufacturing one ton of such rails as those described in the contract; and, on being asked by the plaintiff's attorney to testifiy to those items, the court, under the defendant's objection, allowed him to read the items from the memorandum. He further testified, under an ojbection and exception by the defendant, that the actual cost to the plaintiff of making and delivering the rails in Chicago would have been $48.25; that he stated the elements of such cost from a memorandum prepared by himself, the elements being taken from the books of the plaintiff; that he knew the purchased price of all material which went into the manufacture, because he purchased all of it himself; that the statement was prepared by him from his personal knowledge of the cost; that he called off the items from a penciled memorandum to the book-keeper, who wrote them down; that he (the witness) knew the items to be correctly stated; and that the information as to the items was made up from records running through a series of four of five months, and representing an average as to the cost per ton. The defendant contends that this evidence was inadmissible, in the absence of an opportunity for him to examine the plaintiff's books, with a view to a cross-examination of the witness as to the mode of computation adopted by him, to memorandum being, as contended, the result of the conclusions of the witness from the examination of a large number of entries in the books of the plaintiff. It is a sufficient answer to this objection, that the cost of the rails was not taken by the court at the sum of $48.25, the sum fixed by Smith, but the bill of exceptions shows that the cost was taken at $50 a ton, from the testimony of Richard C. Hannah, another witness; so that, even if the testimony was erroneously admitted, (which it is not necessary to decide,) the defendant suffered no prejudice from its admission.

The judgment of the circuit court is affirmed.

NotesEdit

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).