Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company v. Goddard/Dissent Curtis

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions

United States Supreme Court

55 U.S. 446

Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company  v.  Goddard

Mr. Justice CURTIS.

I have the misfortune to differ from the majority of my brethren, in this case, and, as the question is one which enters into the daily business of merchants, and at the same time involves the construction of a statute of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I think it proper to state, briefly, the grounds on which I rest my opinion.

The first question is, whether the writing of the 19th of September is a sufficient memorandum within the 3d section of the 74th chapter of the Revised Statutes of Massachusetts. The writing is in these words and figures.

'Sept. 19. W. W. Goddard, 12 mos.

300 bales S. F. drills 7 1/4,

100 cases blue drills 8 3/4.

Cr. to commence when ship sails; not after Dec'r 1st; delivered free of charge for truckage.

R. M. M.

W. W. G.

The blues, if color is satisfactory to purchaser.'

Does this writing show, upon its face, and without resorting to extraneous evidence, that W. W. Goddard was the purchaser of these goods? I think not. Certainly it does not so state in terms, nor can I perceive how the fact can be collected from the paper, by any certain intendment. If it be assumed that a sale was made, and that Goddard was a party to the transaction, what is there, on the face of the paper, to show whether Goddard sold or bought? Extraneous evidence that he was the seller, would be just as consistent with this writing, as extraneous evidence that he was the purchaser. Suppose the fact had been, that Mason was the purchaser, and that the writing might be explained by evidence of that fact; it would then be read that Goddard sold to Mason, on twelve months' credit; and this evidence would be consistent with every thing which the paper contains, because the paper is wholly silent as to the fact whether he was the seller or the purchaser. In Bailey et al. v. Ogden, (3 Johns. Rep. 398,) an action for not accepting sugars, the memorandum was:

'14 December.

J. Ogden & Co.-Bailey & Bogart.

Brown, 12 1/2, }

White, 16 1/4. }

60 and 90 days.

Debenture part pay.'

Mr. Justice Kent, who delivered the opinion of the court, enumerating the objections to the memorandum, says, no person can ascertain, from this memorandum, which of the parties was seller, and which buyer; and I think it would be difficult to show that the memorandum now in question is any more intelligible, in reference to this fact.

Indeed, I do not understand it is supposed, that, in the absence of all extraneous evidence, it could be determined by the court, as matter of law, upon an inspection of the paper alone, that Goddard was the purchaser of these goods. The real inquiry is, whether extraneous evidence of this fact is admissible.

Now, it is true, the statute requires only some note, or memorandum, in writing, of the bargain; but I consider it settled, that this writing must show who is vendor, and who is purchaser. In Champion v. Plumer, (1 B. & P. New Rep. 252,) the memorandum contained the name of the vendor, a description of the goods, and their price, and was signed by the vendee; yet, it was held that the vendee could not maintain an action thereon, because it did not appear, from the writing, that he was vendee, though it was clearly proved by parol.

In Sherburn et al. v. Shaw, (1 N. H. Rep. 157,) the plaintiffs caused certain real estate to be sold at auction, and the defendant, being the highest bidder, signed a memorandum, agreeing to take the property; this memorandum was written on a paper, headed, 'Articles of sale of the estate of Jonathan Warner, deceased,' containing the terms of the sale; and this paper was also signed by the auctioneer. Yet the court, through Mr. Justice Woodbury, who delivered the opinion, held that, as the paper failed to show that the plaintiffs were the vendors, it was radically defective. Here, also, there was no doubt that the plaintiffs were the vendors, but extraneous evidence to supply this fact was considered inadmissible.

It seems to me that the fact that the defendant was the purchaser, is, to say the least, as necessary to be stated in the writing as any other fact, and that to allow it to be proved by parol, is to violate the intent of the statute, and encounter the very mischiefs which it was enacted to prevent. Chancellor Kent, (2 Com. 511,) says, 'the contract must, however, be stated with reasonable certainty, so that it can be understood from the writing itself, without having recourse to parol proof.' And this position rests upon a current of authorities, both in England and America, which it is presumed are not intended to be disturbed. But how can the contract be understood from the writing itself, when that fails to state which party is vendor and which purchaser?

I am aware that a latent ambiguity in a contract may be removed by extraneous evidence, according to the rules of the common law; and that such evidence is also admissible to show what, in point of fact, was the subject-matter called for by the terms of a contract. Bradlee v. Steam P. Co. 16 Pet. 98. So when an act has been done by a person, and it is doubtful whether he acted in a private or official capacity, it is allowable to prove by parol that he was an agent and acted as such. But these cases fall far short of proving that when a statute requires a contract to be in writing, you may prove by parol the fact that the defendant was purchaser, the writing being silent as to that fact; or that a writing, which does not state who is vendor and who purchaser, does contain in itself the essentials of a contract of sale.

It is one thing to construe what is written; it is a very different thing to supply a substantive fact not stated in the writing. It is one thing to determine the meaning and effect of a complete and valid written contract, and it is another thing to take a writing, which on its face imports no contract, and make it import one by parol evidence. It is one thing to show that a party, who appears by a writing to have made a contract, made it as an agent, and quite a different thing to prove by parol that he made a purchase when the writing is silent as to that fact. The duty and power of the court is a duty and power to give a construction to what is written, and not in any case to permit it to be added to by parol. Least of all when a statute has required the essential requisites of a contract of sale to be in writing, is it admissible, in my judgment, to allow the fact, that the defendant made a purchase, to be proved by parol. If this fact, which lies at the basis of the action and to which every other is but incidental, can be proved by evidence out of the writing signed by the defendant, the statute seems to me to be disregarded.

It has been argued that the bill of parcels, sent to Goddard by Mason and Lawrence, and received by him, may be resorted to for the purpose of showing he was the purchaser. But it is certainly the law of Massachusetts, where this contract was made, and the case tried, as I believe it is of most other States, and of England, that unless the memorandum which is signed contains a reference to some other paper, no paper, not signed by the party to be charged, can be connected with the memorandum, or used to supply and defect therein. This was held in Morton et al. v. Dean, (13 Met. R. 385,) a case to which I shall have occasion more fully to refer hereafter. And in conformity therewith, Chancellor Kent lays down the rule in 2 Com. 511, and refers to many authorities in support of it. I am not aware that any court has held otherwise.

That this bill of parcels was of itself a sufficient memorandum under the statute, or that it was a paper signed by the defendant, or by any person by him thereunto lawfully authorized, I do not understand to be held by the majority of the court.

Now the memorandum of the 19th September, is either sufficient or insufficient, under the statute. If the former, there is no occasion to resort to the bill of parcels to show who was vendor, and who purchaser; because, if the latter, it cannot, consistently with the statute, be made good by another paper not signed, and connected with it only by parol. To charge a party upon an insufficient memorandum, added to by another independent paper, not signed, would be to charge him when there was no sufficient memorandum signed by him, and therefore in direct conflict with the statute. It does not seem to me to be an answer, to say that the bill of parcels was made out pursuant to the memorandum. If the signed memorandum itself does not contain the essentials of a contract of sale, and makes no reference to any other paper, in no legal sense is any other paper pursuant to it nor can any other paper be connected with it, save by parol evidence, which the statute forbids. In point of fact, it would be difficult to imagine any two independent papers more nearly connected, than a memorandum made and signed by an auctioneer, and the written conditions read by him at the sale. Yet it is settled, that the latter cannot be referred to, unless expressly called for by the very terms of the signed memorandum. Upon what principle does a bill of parcel stand upon any better ground?

The distinction, heretofore, has been between papers called for by the memorandum by express reference, and those not called for; this decision, for the first time, I believe, disregards that distinction, and allows an unsigned paper, not referred to, to be used in evidence to charge the purchaser.

In my judgment, this memorandum was defective in not showing who was vendor, and who purchaser, and oral evidence to supply this defect was not admissible.

But if this difficulty could be overcome, or if it had appeared on the face of the paper, that Goddard was the purchaser, still, in my judgment, there is no sufficient memorandum. I take it to be clearly settled, that if the court cannot ascertain from the paper itself, or from some other paper therein referred to, the essential terms of the sale, the writing does not take the case out of the statute. This has been so often decided, that it is sufficient to refer to 2 Kent's Com. 511, where many of the cases are collected.

The rule stated by the Chancellor, as a just deduction from the authorities, is, 'Unless the essential terms of the sale can be ascertained from the writing itself, or by a reference contained in it to something else, the writing is not a compliance with the statute; and if the agreement be thus defective, it cannot be supplied by parol proof, for that would at once introduce all the mischiefs which the statute of frauds and perjuries was intended to prevent.'

The statute, then, requires the essential terms of the sale to be in writing; the credit to be allowed to the purchaser is one of the terms of the sale.

And if the memorandum shows that a credit was to be given, but does not fix its termination, it is fatally defective, for the court cannot ascertain, from the paper, when a right of action accrues to the vendee, and the contract shown by the paper is not capable of being described in a declaration. The rights of the parties, in an essential particular, are left undetermined by the paper. This paper shows there was to be a credit of six months, and contains this clause-'Cr. to commence when ship sails: not after Dec'r 1st.' According to this paper, when is this credit to commence? The answer is, when ship sails, if before December 1st. What ship? The paper is silent.

This is an action against Goddard for not delivering his note on twelve months' credit, and it is an indispensable inquiry, on what day, according to the contract, the note should bear date. The plaintiffs must aver, in their declaration, what note Goddard was bound to deliver, and the memorandum must enable the court to say that the description of the notes in the declaration is correct. They attempt this by averring, in the declaration, that the contract was for a note payable in twelve months from the sailing of a ship called the Crusader, and that this ship sailed on the sixth day of November. But the writing does not refer to the Crusader; and if oral evidence were admissible to prove that the parties referred to the Crusader, this essential term of their contract is derived from parol proof, contrary to the requirement of the statute. It was upon this ground the case of Morton et al. v. Dean, and many other similar cases, have been decided. In that case, there was a memorandum signed by the auctioneer, as the agent of both parties, containing their names, as vendor and vendee, the price to be paid, and a sufficient description of the property. But it appeared that there were written or printed conditions read at the sale, but not referred to in the memorandum, containing the terms of credit, &c., and therefore that the memorandum did not fix all the essential parts of the bargain, and it was held insufficient.

But, further; even if oral evidence were admissible to show that the parties had in view some particular vessel, and so to explain or render certain the memorandum, no such evidence was offered, and no request to leave that question of fact to the jury, was made. Mason, who made the contract with Goddard, was a witness, but he does not pretend the parties had any particular vessel in view, still less that they agreed on the Crusader as the vessel, the sailing of which was to be the commencement of the credit. I cannot perceive, therefore, how either of the counts in this declaration is supported by the evidence, or how a different verdict could have lawfully been rendered.

The count for goods sold and delivered, was clearly not maintained, because, when the action was brought, the credit had not expired, even if it began on the 19th of September. One of the special counts avers, that the notes were to be due twelve months from the 30th of September; but this is inconsistent with the written memorandum, and there is no evidence to support it. The other special counts all declare for a note due twelve months after the sailing of the Crusader, but, as already stated, there is no evidence whatever to support this allegation, and a verdict of the jury, affirming such a contract, must have been set aside.

It may be added, also, that no one of the prayers for instructions, contained in the bill of exceptions, makes the fact that the parties had reference to the Crusader, any element of the contract, but that each of them asks for an instruction upon the assumption that this necessary term of the contract had not been in any way supplied.

I consider the language of Chief Justice Marshall, in Grant v. Naylor, (4 Cranch, 234,) applicable to this case. That great Judge says: 'Already have so many cases been taken out of the statute of frauds, which seem to be within its letter, that it may well be doubted whether the exceptions do not let in many of the mischiefs against which the rule was intended to guard. The best Judges in England have been of opinion that this relaxing construction of the statute ought not to be extended further than it has already been carried, and this court entirely concurs in that opinion.'

I am anthorized to state that Mr. Justice CATRON concurs in this opinion.

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).