Humphries v. District of Columbia
174 U.S. 190 (1899)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Humphries v. District of Columbia, 174 U.S. 190 (1899)

Humphries v. District of Columbia

No. 280

Argued April 4, 1899

Decided May 1, 1899

174 U.S. 190

Syllabus

In this case a jury was empaneled, trial had, and the case submitted on the 30th of November, 1896, with the following written instructions:

"When the jury agree upon a verdict, write it out, all of the jurors sign it, date it, seal it up and deliver to the foreman, to be delivered in open court on the 1st day of December, 1896, and in the presence of all who sign it."

On the 1st of December, the jury returned the following verdict in writing signed by all. The official record of the proceedings is as follows:

"Come here again the parties aforesaid in manner aforesaid, and the same jury return into court, except John T. Wright, who does not appear, and having said sealed verdict in his possession as foreman, sends the same to the court by Dr. McWilliams, who delivers the same to the court with the statement that the said John T. Wright is ill and

Page 174 U. S. 191

confined to his bed and physically unable to appear in court; that he, said McWilliams, is his attending physician, and as such received from said Wright said sealed verdict with direction to deliver it to the court, whereupon the defendant, by its counsel, objected to the reception, opening and reading of said sealed verdict; whereupon, in answer to the questions of the court, the remaining jurors severally on their oath say that they severally signed said verdict, and that they saw said John T. Wright sign the same, and that the name 'John T. Wright,' signed thereto, is in his handwriting; thereupon the remaining jurors on their oath say they find said issue in favor of the plaintiff and assess her damages by reason of the premises at seven thousand dollars ($7,000)."

The counsel for the defendant ask that the jury be polled, which is done, and each of said remaining jurors on his oath says that he finds said issue in favor of the plaintiff and assesses her damages by reason of the premises at $7,000.00. Judgment was entered on this verdict against the District. It was contended by the District, which contention was sustained by the Court of Appeals, that this judgment was a nullity. Held that the defect complained of was merely a matter of error, which did not render the verdict a nullity.

This case is before us on error to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. The facts are these: On May 22, 1896, the plaintiff in error filed an amended declaration in the Supreme Court of the District, claiming damages from the defendant, now defendant in error, on account of injuries caused by a defective condition of the bridge between Washington and Anacostia -- a condition resulting from the negligence of the defendant. A jury was impaneled, trial had, and the case submitted to it on November 30, with instructions to return a sealed verdict. The instructions and the verdict were returned on the morning of December 1, and were in the following form:

"When the jury agree upon a verdict, write it out, all of the jurors sign it, date it, seal it up, and deliver to the foreman, to be delivered in open court on the 1st day of December, 1896, and in the presence of all who sign it."

"Elizabeth M. Humphries "

"v. No. 38,281. At Law."

"The District of Columbia"

"Dated November 30, 1896"

"We, the jurors sworn to try the issue joined in the above-entitled

Page 174 U. S. 192

cause, find said issue in favor of the plaintiff, and that the money payable to him by the defendant is the sum of seven thousand dollars and _____ cents ($7,000.00)."

"All sign:"

"Michael Keegan"

"W. H. St. John"

"Geo. W. Rearden"

"James D. Avery"

"Bernard F. Locraft"

"Geo. W. Amiss"

"Lester G. Thompson"

"Wm. J. Tubman"

"John T. Wright"

"Jos. I. Farrell"

"Isaac N. Rollins"

"Thos. J. Giles"

The proceedings on December 1 are thus stated in the record:

"Come here again the parties aforesaid, in manner aforesaid, and the same jury return into court, except John T. Wright, who does not appear, and, having said sealed verdict in his possession as foreman, sends the same to the court by Dr. McWilliams, who delivers the same to the court with the statement that the said John T. Wright is ill, and confined to his bed, and physically unable to appear in court; that he, said McWilliams, is his attending physician, and as such received from said Wright said sealed verdict with direction to deliver it to the court; whereupon the defendant, by its counsel, objected to the reception, opening, and reading of said sealed verdict; whereupon, in answer to the questions of the court, the remaining jurors severally on their oath say that they severally signed said verdict, and that they saw said John T. Wright sign the same, and that the name 'John T. Wright' signed thereto is in his handwriting. Thereupon the remaining jurors on their oath say they find said issue in favor of the plaintiff, and assess her damages by reason of the premises at seven thousand dollars ($7,000)."

"The counsel for the defendant ask that the jury be polled, which is done, and each of said remaining jurors on his oath says that he finds said issue in favor of the plaintiff, and assesses her damages by reason of the premises at $7,000."

Upon this verdict, a judgment was entered. Proceedings in error were taken, but were dismissed by the Court of

Page 174 U. S. 193

Appeals on account of a failure to have the bill of exceptions prepared in time. Thereafter, and at a succeeding term, the defendant filed a motion to vacate the judgment on the ground that there was no valid verdict, which motion was overruled. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, this decision was reversed, and the case remanded with instructions to vacate the judgment, to set aside the verdict, and award a new trial. 12 App.D.C. 122. This ruling was based on the proposition that the verdict was an absolute nullity, and therefore the judgment resting upon it void, and one which could be set aside at any subsequent term.

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