Pierce v. Tennessee Coal, Iron & R. Co.
173 U.S. 1 (1899)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Pierce v. Tennessee Coal, Iron & R. Co., 173 U.S. 1 (1899)

Pierce v. Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company

No. 174

Argued and submitted January 19-20, 1899

Decided February 20, 1899

173 U.S. 1

Syllabus

An agreement in writing between a mining company and a machinist stated that, while in its employ, he was seriously hurt under circumstances which he claimed, and it denied, made it liable to him in damages; that six months after the injury, both parties being desirous of settling his claim for damages, the company agreed to pay him regular wages and to furnish him with certain supplies while he was disabled, and carried out that agreement for six months, at the end of which, after he had resumed work, it was agreed that the company should give him such work as he could do and pay him wages as before his injury, and this agreement was kept by both parties for a year, and then, in lieu of the previous agreements, a new agreement was made that his wages "from this date" should be a certain sum monthly, and he should receive certain supplies, and he on his part released the company from all liability for his injury and agreed that this should be a full settlement of all his claims against the company. Held that the last agreement was not terminable at the end of any month at the pleasure of the company, but bound it to pay him the wages stipulated and to furnish him the supplies agreed so long as his disability to do full work continued, and that if the company discharged him from its service without cause, he was entitled to

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elect to treat the contract as absolutely and finally broken by the company and, in an action against it upon the contract, to introduce evidence of his age, health and expectancy of life, and, if his disability was permanent, to recover the full value of the contract to him at the time of the breach, including all that he would have received in the future as well as in the past if the contract had been kept, deducting, however, any sum that he might have earned already or might thereafter earn as well as the amount of any loss that the defendant sustained by the loss of his services without its fault.

This was an action brought January 22, 1892, in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, in the State of Alabama, by Frank H. Pierce, a citizen of the State of Alabama, against the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, a corporation of the State of Tennessee, doing business in the State of Alabama, upon a written contract, signed by the parties, and in the following terms:

"Pratt Mines, Ala. 4th June, 1890. Whereas, I, F. H. Pierce, while in the employ of the Tennessee Iron, Coal and Railroad Company, Pratt Mines Division, as a machinist was seriously hurt by a trip of tram cars on the main slope of the mine, known as 'Slope No. 2' and operated by the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company under circumstances which I claim render the said company liable to me for damages, but whereas they disclaim any liability for said accident or the injuries to me resulting from same, and both parties being desirous of settling and compromising said matter, and whereas the said Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company did make me a proposition on the ___ day of November, 1888, said accident having occurred on the 21st day of May, 1888, that they would furnish me such supplies from the commissary at No. 2 prison as I might choose to take, pay me regular wages while I was disabled, and give me my coal and wood for fuel at my dwelling, and the benefit of the convict garden at No. 2, and whereas, said proposition was accepted by me and carried out by the said company, and whereas, in May, 1889, after I had resumed work, a further proposition was made to me to give me work such as I could do, paying me therefor the wages paid me before said accident, that is, $60 per month, and in addition free house rent [or, in lieu of

Page 173 U. S. 3

house rent, a certain amount of supplies from the convict commissary at No. 2 prison which supplies were to amount to about the sum paid by me for house rent], and whereas said agreement has been faithfully kept by both parties, and whereas, on the 4th day of June, 1890, it is mutually agreed between myself and the said company that it will be better to give me the house rent than the supplies of about equal amount from the commissary, now therefore it is agreed, in view of the above propositions, which have been faithfully carried out, that my wages from this date are to be $65 a month, and in addition I am to have, free of charge, my coal and wood necessary for my household use at my dwelling, and the same benefit from the garden as is had by others who are allowed the garden privilege, and I, on my part, agree and bind myself to release the said company from any and all liability for said accident, or from the injuries resulting to me from it or from the effects of it, and agree that this is to be a full and satisfactory settlement of any and all claims which I might have against said company."

The complaint set out the contract, except the clause above printed in brackets, and alleged that, by this contract, the defendant became liable to pay the plaintiff monthly during his life the wages therein stipulated, and to furnish him with coal and wood and allow him the privilege of the garden, as therein agreed; that the plaintiff had always been ready and offered to do for the defendant such work given to him as he was able to do, and had labored at the same for such reasonable time as he was able to work and bound to work under this contract; that, by the injuries received by him from the accident mentioned therein he was permanently disabled in the use of his legs and hands, and otherwise so injured as to be incapacitated to do more work than he had done and had offered to do; but that the defendant, without any reasonable ground for so doing, abandoned the contract and refused to carry it out, claiming that the defendant was under no obligation to pay to the plaintiff the wages therein stipulated longer than suited its pleasure, and had wholly and purposely disregarded and refused to abide by the obligations of the contract

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for the period of six months next before the commencement of the suit, and had entirely abandoned the contract and discharged the plaintiff from its service. The plaintiff claimed damages in the sum of $50,000 for the defendant's breach and abandonment of the contract.

The defendant demurred to the complaint upon the ground that the contract set out therein was one of hiring, terminable at the will of either party, and not one of hiring for life, as alleged in the complaint, and that it appeared from the allegations of the complaint that the defendant, in terminating the contract of hiring, had only exercised its legal right under the contract. The court sustained the demurrer, and, the plaintiff declining to amend his complaint, rendered judgment for the defendant, and the plaintiff, on February 21, 1894, appealed from that judgment to the Supreme Court of Alabama.

The record transmitted to this Court does not show any further proceedings in the Supreme Court of Alabama. But the official reports of its decisions show that, at November term, 1895, it reversed that judgment and remanded the case to the county court. Pierce v. Tennessee Coal Co., 110 Ala. 533. And the record before this Court necessarily implies that fact by setting forth that, in March, 1896, on motion of the defendant suggesting that from prejudice and local influence it would not be able to obtain justice in the state courts, the case was removed from the county court into the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern Division of the Northern District of Alabama, and a motion to remand the case to the state court was made by the plaintiff (on what ground did not appear in the record), and was overruled.

In the circuit court of the United States, on January 4, 1897, the following proceedings took place: the demurrer to the complaint was renewed by the defendant and overruled by the court. The plaintiff then amended his complaint by inserting in the copy of the contract set forth therein the words above printed in brackets, and a demurrer to the amended complaint was filed and overruled. In answer to this complaint, the defendant filed two pleas: (1) a denial of each and every allegation of the complaint; (2)

"the defendant,

Page 173 U. S. 5

for further answer to the complaint, says that the plaintiff, under and by the terms of the contract set out in the complaint, contracted to perform for the defendant during the term thereof such service as he was able to perform, in consideration for the promises made by defendant therein, and the defendant avers that the plaintiff thereafter became able to perform service for the defendant, and did in fact perform such service for some time thereafter, and that, while engaged in the performance of such service, the plaintiff voluntarily, and without excuse therefor, refused to further perform such service as he was able to perform and was in fact performing for the defendant as required by said contract, and the defendant thereupon discharged the plaintiff from its service, and the defendant avers that the plaintiff failed to comply with the conditions imposed upon him by said contract."

The plaintiff joined issue on the first plea, and demurred to the second plea upon the ground that it did not go to the whole consideration of the contract, and was no answer to the entire action, and the court sustained his demurrer. The defendant, for further answer and by way of recoupment, pleaded that, on May 3, 1891, the plaintiff, voluntarily and without excuse, refused to perform such labor as he was able to perform and was in fact performing for the defendant as required by the contract, and since that time had continued to refuse to perform, and had not in fact performed, such service, or any part thereof, to the damage of the defendant in the sum of $50,000.

A bill of exceptions tendered by the plaintiff and allowed by the court showed that at the trial before the jury the following proceedings were had:

The plaintiff introduced and read in evidence the contract sued on, and introduced evidence tending to prove the allegations of the complaint. He also offered evidence that, at the time of his discharge by the defendant from its employment in May, 1891, he was 55 years of age, and that he was then, and had since been, in good health and addicted to no habits, of drinking or otherwise, affecting his health and expectancy of life, and introduced the American tables of mortality

Page 173 U. S. 6

used by insurance companies, showing his expectancy of life at the time of his discharge and at the time of the trial.

But the court ruled that no recovery could be allowed on the contract beyond the installments of wages due and in default up to the date of the trial, and, upon the defendant's motion, excluded all evidence of the plaintiff's age, health, and expectancy of life

"on the ground that it was immaterial and irrelevant, and because damages for the expectancy of life was a matter too vague and uncertain to be allowed."

The plaintiff duly excepted to the ruling and to the exclusion of evidence, and, to present the same point, asked the court to give, and duly excepted to its refusal to give, the following instruction to the jury:

"If the defendant, after making the contract sued on and before the suit, refused further to pay the plaintiff and to furnish the articles stipulated to be furnished, and refused to employ the plaintiff, and discharged him, the plaintiff is entitled to the full benefit of his contract, which is the present value of the money agreed to be paid and the articles to be furnished under the contract for the period of his life, if his disability is permanent, less such sum as the jury may find the plaintiff may be able to earn in the future, and may have been able heretofore to earn, and less such loss as the defendant may have sustained from the loss of the plaintiff's service without the defendant's fault."

The defendant also tendered and was allowed a bill of exceptions, presenting substantially, though in different form, the questions involved in the plaintiff's case, and the contents of which therefore need not be particularly stated.

The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the sum of $5,893, upon which judgment was rendered. Each party sued out a writ of error from the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

That court was of opinion that the contract sued on was for

"an employment by the month, and therefore, like every other such employment, subject to be discontinued at the will of either party at the expiration of any month or at any time for adequate cause,"

and consequently that there was error

Page 173 U. S. 7

in overruling the demurrer to the complaint, and upon that ground, without passing upon any other question in the case, reversed the judgment of the circuit court of the United States and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings, Judge Pardee dissenting. 81 F. 814. The plaintiff thereupon applied for and obtained a writ of certiorari from this Court. 168 U.S. 709.

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