St. Louis & San Francisco Ry. Co. v. Mathews
165 U.S. 1 (1897)

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U.S. Supreme Court

St. Louis & San Francisco Ry. Co. v. Mathews, 165 U.S. 1 (1897)

St. Louis and San Francisco Railway Company v. Mathews

No. 105

Argued and submitted November 4, 1890

Decided January 4, 1897

165 U.S. 1

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT

OF THE STATE OF MISSOURI

Syllabus

A statute of a state which enacts that every railroad corporation owning or operating a railroad in the state shall be responsible in damages to the owner of any property injured or destroyed by fire communicated directly or indirectly by locomotive engines in use upon its railroad, and which provides that it shall have an insurable interest in the property upon the route of its railroad, and may procure insurance thereon in its own behalf, does not violate the Constitution of the United States as depriving the railroad company of its property without due process of law, or as denying to it the equal protection of the laws, or as impairing the obligation of the contract made between the state and the company by its incorporation under general laws imposing no such liability.

This was an action brought in an inferior court of the State of Missouri by an owner of land in St. Louis County against a railroad corporation organized under the laws of the state and owning and operating with locomotive engines a line of railway adjoining the plaintiff's land to recover damages for the destruction of the plaintiff's dwelling house, barn, outbuildings,

Page 165 U. S. 2

shrubbery, and personal property upon that land by fire communicated from one of those engines on August 9, 1887.

The petition contained two counts, the first of which alleged negligence on the part of the defendant and the second did not, but was founded on the statute of Missouri of March 31, 1887, by which

"each railroad corporation owning or operating a railroad in this state shall be responsible in damages to every person and corporation whose property may be injured or destroyed by fire communicated directly or indirectly by locomotive engines in use upon the railroad owned or operated by such railroad corporation, and each such railroad corporation shall have an insurable interest in the property upon the route of the railroad owned or operated by it, and may procure insurance thereon in its own behalf, for its protection against such damages."

Missouri Laws of 1887, p. 101; Rev.Stat. of 1889, § 2615.

The answer, among other defenses, set up that the statute violated the Constitution of the United States by depriving the defendant of its property without due process of law and by denying to it the equal protection of the laws and by impairing the obligation of the contract made between it and the state

"by the terms and provisions of which it was impliedly agreed that said defendant might and could use fire for the purpose of generating steam to propel said locomotive engines and cars attached thereto, and be responsible only for the negligent and careless use thereof."

The defendant was incorporated September 10, 1875, under the general laws of the state, which authorized railroad corporations to be formed by voluntary articles of association filed in the office of the Secretary of State, and to lay out and construct their railroad, to take lands for the purpose, and

"to take and convey persons and property on their railroad by the power or force of steam, or of animals, or by any mechanical power, and to receive compensation therefor."

Missouri Gen.Stat. of 1865, c. 63, §§ 1, 2; Rev.Stat. of 1889, §§ 2542, 2543.

At the trial, the plaintiff introduced evidence tending to

Page 165 U. S. 3

support the allegations of the petition, and the court at his request, instructed the jury that

"if they believe from the evidence that, during the month of August, 1887, plaintiff was the owner of the land in the petition described, and defendant was the owner or operating a railroad adjoining said land, having locomotive engines in use upon said road, and that, on August 9, 1887, fire was communicated from a locomotive engine then in use upon the railroad owned or operated by defendant to plaintiff's property on his said land, and thereby the buildings and other property in the petition mentioned, or any of it, were destroyed, then the jury will find for the plaintiff."

The court refused to give to the jury the following instruction, requested by the defendant:

"Though the jury may believe from the evidence that fire was communicated from a locomotive engine in use on defendant's railroad to plaintiff's property, as charged in the second count of plaintiff's petition, yet that fact is only prima facie evidence of negligence on the part of defendant, and, unless the jury believe from the whole evidence in the case that said fire was either negligently set out by defendant or was communicated to plaintiff's property by reason of defendant's negligence, the plaintiff cannot recover."

The defendant excepted to the instruction given, as well as to the refusal to instruct as requested, and after verdict and judgment for the plaintiff, appealed to the supreme court of the state, which held the statute to be constitutional and affirmed the judgment. 121 Mo. 298. The defendant sued out this writ of error.

Page 165 U. S. 5

MR. JUSTICE GRAY, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The only question presented by the record of which this Court has jurisdiction is whether there is anything inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States in the statute of Missouri of March 31, 1887, by which every railroad corporation owning or operating a railroad in the state is made responsible in damages for property of any person injured or destroyed by fire communicated by its locomotive engines, and is declared to have an insurable interest in property along its route, and authorized to insure such property for its protection against such damages.

It has been strenuously argued in behalf of the plaintiff in error that this statute is an arbitrary, unreasonable, and unconstitutional exercise of legislative power, imposing an absolute and onerous liability of the consequences of doing a lawful act and of conducting a lawful business in a lawful and careful manner, and that the statute violates the Constitution of the United States by depriving the railroad company of its property without due process of law, by denying to it the equal protection of the laws, and by impairing the obligation of the contract previously made between it and the state by its incorporation under general laws authorizing it to convey passengers and freight over its railroad by the use of locomotive engines.

The argument that this statute is in excess of the power of the legislature may be the most satisfactorily met by first tracing the history of the law regarding the liability of persons for fire originating on their own premises and spreading to the property of others.

At common law, every man appears to have been obliged by the custom of the realm to keep his fire safe so that it should not injure his neighbor, and to have been liable to an action if a fire, lighted in his own house or upon his land by

Page 165 U. S. 6

the act of himself or of his servants or guests, burned the house or property of his neighbor, unless its spreading to his neighbor's property was caused by a violent tempest or other inevitable accident which he could not have foreseen. Thirning, C.J., and Markham, J., in Beaulien v. Finglam, Yearbook 2 H. IV., 18; Anon., Cro.Eliz. 10; 1 Rol.Ab. 1, "Action sur Case," B; 1 D'Anvers Abr. "Actions," B; Turberville v. Stamp (1698) Comyns 32, s.c., 1 Salk. 13; Holt 9; 1 Ld.Raym. 264; 12 Mod. 152; Com.Dig. "Action upon the case for Negligence," A, 6; 1 Vin.Abr. 215, 216; 1 Bac. Abr. "Action on the case," F (Am.ed. 1852) p. 122; Canterbury v. Attorney General, 1 Phil.Ch. 306, 316-319; Filliter v. Phippard, 11 Q.B. 347, 354; Furlong v. Carroll, 7 Ontario App. 145, 159.

The common law liability in case of ordinary accident, without proof of negligence, was impliedly recognized in the statute of Anne, passed within ten years after the decision in Turberville v. Stamp, above cited, and providing that

"no action, suit or process whatsoever shall be had, maintained, or prosecuted against any person in whose house or chamber any fire shall accidentally begin, or any recompense be made by such person for any damage suffered or occasioned thereby, any law or usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding."

Stats. 6 Anne (1707), c. 31 [58], § 7; 8 Statutes of the Realm 795; 10 Anne (1711), c. 14 [24] § 1; 9 Statutes of the Realm 684. By the statute of 14 Geo. III (1774), c. 78, § 86, the statute of Anne was extended to "any person in whose house, chamber, stable, barn or other building, or on whose estate any fire shall accidentally begin.

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