Norrington v. Wright
115 U.S. 188 (1885)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Norrington v. Wright, 115 U.S. 188 (1885)

Norrington v. Wright, 115 U.S. 188 (1885)

Argued January 20-21, 1885

Decided October 26, 1885

115 U.S. 188

Syllabus

In a mercantile contract, a statement descriptive of the subject matter or of some material incident, such as the time or place of shipment, is ordinarily to be regarded as a warranty, or condition precedent, upon the failure or nonperformance of which the party aggrieved may repudiate the whole contract.

Under a contract made in Philadelphia, for the sale of

"5,000 tons iron rails, for shipment from a European port or ports at the rate of about 1,000 tons per month, beginning February, 1850, but whole contract to be shipped before August 1, 1880 at $45 per ton of 2,240 lbs, custom house weight, ex ship Philadelphia; settlement cash on presentation of bills accompanied by custom house certificate of weight; sellers not to be compelled to replace any parcel lost after shipment,"

the sellers are bound to ship 1,000 tons in each month from February to June inclusive, except that slight and unimportant deficiencies may be made up in July, and if only 400 tons are shipped in February, and 885 tons in March, and the buyer accepts and pays for the February shipment on its arrival in March at the stipulated

Page 115 U. S. 189

price and above its market value, and in ignorance that no more has been shipped in February, and is first informed of that fact after the arrival of the March shipments and before accepting or paying for either of them, he may rescind the contract by reason of the failure to ship about 1,000 tons in each of the months of February and March.

This was an action of assumpsit, brought by Arthur Norrington, a citizen of Great Britain, trading under the name of A. Norrington & Co., against James A. Wright and others, citizens of Pennsylvania, trading under the name of Peter Wright & Sons, upon the following contract:

"Philadelphia, January 19, 1880. Sold to Messrs. Peter Wright & Sons, for account of A. Norrington & Co., London: Five thousand (5,000) tons old T iron rails, for shipment from a European port or ports at the rate of about one thousand (1,000) tons per month, beginning February, 1880, but whole contract to be shipped before August 1, 1880 at forty-five dollars ($45.00) per ton of 2240 lbs. custom house weight, ex ship Philadelphia. Settlement, cash, on presentation of bills accompanied by custom house certificate of weight. Sellers to notify buyers of shipments with vessels' names as soon as known by them. Sellers not to be compelled to replace any parcel lost after shipment. Sellers, when possible, to secure to buyers right to name discharging berth of vessels at Philadelphia."

"Edward J. Etting, Metal Broker"

The declaration contained three counts. The first count alleged the contract to have been for the sale of about 5,000 tons of T iron rails, to be shipped at the rate of about 1,000 tons a month, beginning in February, and ending in July, 1880. The second count set forth the contract verbatim. Each of these two counts alleged that the plaintiffs in February, March, April, May, June, and July shipped the goods at the rate of about 1,000 tons a month, and notified the shipments to the defendants, and further alleged the due arrival of the goods at Philadelphia, the plaintiff's readiness to deliver the goods and bills thereof, with custom house certificates of weight, according to the contract, and the defendants' refusal to accept them.

Page 115 U. S. 190

The third count differed from the second only in averring that 400 tons were shipped by the plaintiff in February and accepted by the defendants, and that the rest was shipped by the plaintiffs at the rate of about 1,000 tons a month in March, April, May, June, and July. The defendants pleaded non assumpsit. The material facts proved at the trial were as follows:

The plaintiff shipped from various European ports 400 tons by one vessel in the last part of February, 885 tons by two vessels in March, 1,571 tons by five vessels in April, 850 tons by three vessels in May, 1,000 tons by two vessels in June, and 300 tons by one vessel in July, and notified to the defendants each shipment.

The defendants received and paid for the February shipment upon its arrival in March, and in April gave directions at what wharves the March shipments should be discharged on their arrival; but on May 14, about the time of the arrival of the March shipments, and having been then for the first time informed of the amounts shipped in February, March, and April, they gave Etting written notice that they should decline to accept the shipments made in March and April because none of them was in accordance with the contract, and in answer to a letter from him of May 16, wrote him on May 17, as follows:

"We are advised that what has occurred does not amount to an acceptance of the iron under the circumstances and the terms of the contract. You had a right to deliver in parcels, and we had a right to expect the stipulated quantity would be delivered until the time was up in which that was possible. Both delivering and receiving were thus far conditional on there being thereafter a complete delivery in due time and of the stipulated article. On the assumption that this time had arrived, and that you had ascertained that you did not intend to, or could not, make any further deliveries for the February and March shipments, we gave you the notice that we declined accepting those deliveries. As to April, it is too plain, we suppose, to require any remark. If we are mistaken as to our obligation for the February and March shipments, of course, we must abide the consequences; but if we are right, you have

Page 115 U. S. 191

not performed your contract, as you certainly have not for the April shipments. There is then the very serious and much debated question, as we are advised, whether the failure to make the stipulated shipments in February or March has absolved us from the contract. If it does, we, of course, will avail ourselves of this advantage."

On May 18, Etting wrote to the defendants, insisting on their liability for both past and future shipments and saying, among other things:

"In respect to the objection that there had not been a complete delivery in due time of the stipulated article, I beg to call your attention to the fact that while the contract is for five thousand tons, it expressly stipulates that deliveries may be made during six months, and that they are only to be at the rate of about one thousand tons per month. . . . As to April, while it seems to me 'too plain to require any remark,' I do not see how it can seem so to you, unless you intend to accept the rails. If you object to taking all three shipments made in that month, I shall feel authorized to deliver only two of the cargoes, or, for that matter, to make the delivery of precisely one thousand tons. But I think I am entitled to know definitely from you whether you intend to reject the April shipments, and if so, upon what ground, and also whether you are decided to reject the remaining shipments under the contract. You say in your last paragraph that you shall avail yourselves of the advantage if you are absolved from the contract, but, as you seem to be in doubt whether you can set up that claim or not, I should like to know definitely what is your intention."

On May 19, the defendants replied:

"We do not read the contract as you do. We read it as stipulating for monthly shipments of about one thousand tons, beginning in February, and that the six months' clause is to secure the completion of whatever had fallen short in the five months. As to the meaning of 'about,' it is settled as well as such a thing can be, and certainly neither the February, March, nor April shipments are within the limits. As to the proposal to vary the notices for April shipments, we do not think you can do this. The notice of the shipments, as soon as known, you were bound to

Page 115 U. S. 192

give, and cannot afterwards vary it if they do not conform to the contract. Our right to be notified immediately that the shipments were known is as material a provision as any other, nor can it be changed now in order to make that a performance which was no performance within the time required. . . . You ask us to determine whether we will or will not object to receive further shipments because of past defaults. We tell you we will if we are entitled to do so, and will not if we are not entitled to do so. We do not think you have the right to compel us to decide a disputed question of law to relieve you from the risk of deciding it yourself. You know quite as well as we do what is the rule and its uncertainty of application."

On June 10, Etting offered to the defendants the alternative of delivering to them one thousand tons strict measure on account of the shipments in April. This offer they immediately declined. On June 15, Etting wrote to the defendants that two cargoes, amounting to 221 tons, of the April shipments, and two cargoes, amounting to 650 tons, of the May shipments (designated by the names of the vessels), had been erroneously notified to them, and that about 900 tons had been shipped by a certain other vessel on account of the May shipments. On the same day, the defendants replied that the notification as to April shipments could not be corrected at this late date and after the terms of the contract had long since been broken.

From the date of the contract to the time of its rescission by the defendants, the market price of such iron was lower than that stipulated in the contract, and was constantly falling. After the arrival of the cargoes and their tender and refusal, they were sold by Etting, with the consent of the defendants, for the benefit of whom it might concern.

At the trial the plaintiff contended 1st, that under the contract he had six months in which to ship the 5,000 tons, and any deficiency in the earlier months could be made up subsequently, provided that the defendants could not be required to take more than 1,000 tons in anyone month; 2d, that if this was not so, the contract was a divisible contract, and the remedy of the defendants for a default in any month was not by rescission of the whole contract, but only by deduction of

Page 115 U. S. 193

the damages caused by the delays in the shipments on the part of the plaintiff.

But the court instructed the jury that if the defendants, at the time accepting the delivery of the cargo paid for, had no notice of the failure of the plaintiff to ship about 1,000 tons in the month of February, and immediately upon learning that fact gave notice of their intention to rescind, the verdict should be for them. The plaintiff excepted to this instruction, and, after verdict and judgment for the defendants, sued out this writ of error

Page 115 U. S. 203

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