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United States Supreme Court

19 U.S. 109

Hopkins  v.  Lee

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia.

This was an action of covenant, brought by the defendant in error, (Lee,) against the plaintiff in error, (Hopkins,) to recover damages for not conveying certain tracts of military lands, which the plaintiff in error had agreed to convey, upon the defendant in error relieving a certain incumbrance held by one Rawleigh Colston, upon an estate called Hill and Dale, and which Lee had previously granted and sold to Hopkins, and for which the military lands in question were to be received in part payment. The declaration set forth the covenant, and averred that Lee had completely removed the incumbrance, from Hill and Dale. The defendant below pleaded, 1. That he had not completely removed the incumbrance; and, 2. That he (the defendant below) had never been required by Lee to convey the military lands to him: and on these pleas issues were joined. Upon the trial, Lee, in order to prove the incumbrance in question was removed, offered in evidence to the jury a record of the proceeding in Chancery, on a bill filed against him in the Circuit Court by Hopkins. The bill stated, that on the 23d of January, 1807, the date of the agreement on which the present action at law was brought, Hopkins purchased of Lee, the estate of Hill and Dale, for which he agreed to pay 18,000 dollars: viz. 10,000 dollars in military lands, at settled prices, and to give his bond for the residue, payable in April, 1809. That Lee, in pursuance of this agreement, selected certain military lands in the bill mentioned. That at the time of the purchase of Hill and Dale, it was mortgaged to Colston for a large sum, which Lee had promised to discharge, but had failed so to do, in consequence of which Hopkins had paid off the mortgage himself. The bill then claimed a large sum of money from Lee for having removed this incumbrance, and prayed that the defendant might be decreed to pay it, or in default thereof, that the claimant might be authorized by a decree of Chancery to sell the military lands, which he considered as a pledge remaining in his hands, and out of the proceeds thereof, to pay himself. On the coming in of Lee's answer, denying several of the allegations of the bill, the cause was referred to a master, who made a report, stating a balance of 427 dollars 77 cents, due from Hopkins to Lee. This report was not excepted to, and the Court, after referring to it, proceeded to decree the payment of the balance. To this testimony the defendant in the present action objected, so far as respected the reading of the master's report, and the decretal order thereon; but the objection was overruled by the Court below, and the evidence admitted. The counsel for the plaintiff in error then prayed the Court to instruct the jury, that in the assessment of damages, they should take the price of the military lands as agreed upon by the parties in the articles of agreement upon which the action was brought, as the measure of damages for the breach of covenant. But the Court refused to give this instruction, and directed the jury to take the price of the lands, at the time they ought to have been conveyed, as the measure of damages. To this instruction the plaintiff in error excepted; and a verdict and judgment thereon being rendered for the plaintiff below, the cause was brought by writ of error to this Court.

Mr. Pinkney and Mr. Swann, for the plaintiff in error, argued, (1.) That the proceedings in Chancery were not admissible evidence in the action at law. A verdict and judgment are indeed conclusive evidence between the same parties; but the other proceedings in the cause, and all that which is merely inducement to the verdict or judgment, are not evidence. So, a decree in Chancery is not conclusive evidence of all the facts in the course of the cause. Not that the decree is not conclusive as a res judicata: but the decree here is no otherwise conclusive than as giving the party, in whose favour it was pronounced, a right to have it executed. It is not evidence at all, unless it be conclusive evidence: but it cannot be conclusive evidence of the details of the cause, and of the incidental questions which arose in its progress. (2.) The proper measure of damages in the action at law, was the price agreed by the parties. When a portion of the price of land is to be paid for in other land, the pecuniary price, with interest, is the rule at law, where specific performance is not called for. It is thus subjected to the analogical rule in the Court of Chancery, where the contract is rescinded, instead of being specifically performed.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Lee, for the defendant in error, insisted, (1.) That the proceedings in Chancery were not only admissible evidence in the suit at law, but conclusive evidence. It may be safely admitted that the decree is not evidence of such facts as are only collaterally or incidentally drawn in question, or can only be argumentatively inferred from the decree. But where the decree professes to be founded on a particular fact, which was the principal question in issue, and was ascertained by the master's report, it must be conclusive in any other suit between the same parties. (2.) As to the proper measure of damages, it is the settled doctrine of this Court, that in an action by the purchaser for a breach of the contract of sale, the rule of damages is the price of the article at the time of the breach.a It is true, that the case of Shepherd v. Hampton, was a sale of goods; but it is not perceived that there is any difference in the application of the principle to real or to personal property.

Mr. Justice LIVINGSTON 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).