Washington, A. & G. S.P. Co. v. Sickles
51 U.S. 419 (1850)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Washington, A. & G. S.P. Co. v. Sickles, 51 U.S. 10 How. 419 419 (1850)

Washington, Alexandria & Georgetown

Steam Packet Company v. Sickles

51 U.S. (10 How.) 419

Syllabus

Where the declaration contained two counts; viz., the first upon a special contract that the plaintiffs had placed a machine for saving fuel on board of the steamboat of the defendants, and were entitled to a certain portion of the savings, the second upon a quantum meruit, it was admissible to give in evidence by the plaintiffs the experiments of practical engineers to show the value of the machine. Evidence had previously been given, tending to prove the value in the mode pointed out in the contract, and the evidence in question tended not to contradict, but to corroborate it. It was therefore admissible under the first count, and clearly so under the second.

On the part of the defendants, the evidence of the president of the steamboat company was then given, denying the special contract alleged by the plaintiffs, and affirming a totally different one, namely, that, if the owners of the boat could not agree with the plaintiff's to purchase it, the latter were to take it away. The court should have instructed the jury, that, if they believed this evidence, they should find for the defendants.

The court below instructed the jury that if the president of the company, acting as its general agent, made the special contract with the plaintiffs, the company were bound by it, whether he communicated it to the company or not. This instruction was right. But the court erred in saying that the plaintiffs had a right to recover on their special count, if the machine was useful to the defendants, without regarding the stipulations of that contract as laid and proved, and the determination of the plaintiffs to adhere to it. Because, by the contract, the defendants are to use the machine during the continuance of the patent right, and as no time is pointed out for a settlement, a right of action did not accrue until the whole service had been performed.

Whether, if there had been a count in the declaration for the cost of the machine, and the jury had believed that the defendants had agreed to pay it as soon as it was earned, the plaintiffs might not recover to that amount, or whether such a construction could be put on the contract as proved, are questions not before the court on this record, and upon which no opinion is expressed.

Page 51 U. S. 420

It came up upon a bill of exceptions to the admission of certain evidence, and four bills of exceptions to refusals of the court below to grant certain prayers, all of which exceptions were taken by the defendants below (the plaintiffs in error here). But as two of the last-named bills of exceptions were not pressed in this Court, it is not necessary to state them or to state more of the case than is sufficient to show the points argued and decided by this Court.

In March, 1846, Sickles and Cook brought an action against the Steam Packet Company. The cause of action is thus stated in the declaration:

"Whereupon the said plaintiffs, by Joseph H. Bradley, their attorney, complain for that whereas heretofore, to-wit, on the first day of July, 1844, the said defendants, at the county aforesaid, being the owners of a certain steamboat called the Columbia and running in the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, in consideration that the said plaintiffs, being the proprietors of a certain machine called 'Sickles' cut-off,' designed to effect a saving in the consumption of fuel for steam engines, would place one of the said machines on the said steamboat Columbia, undertook and promised the said plaintiffs to apply the whole value of the saving of the fuel on board the said boat, which should be effected by the said machine, in the first place, to pay the cost and expenses of building the said machine, and putting the same on the said boat; and thereafter, and after having paid the said costs and expenses, that they, the said defendants, would, so long as the said steamboat should continue to be employed by the said defendants, if the patent right for the said machine should continue so long, pay to the said plaintiffs three-fourths of the saving in fuel caused by said machine. And that the saving caused by the said machine, called the cut-off, on board the said boat, should be ascertained at any time the said plaintiffs should desire it, in the following manner, to-wit, by taking equal quantities of wood, and using the same first with one and then with the other cut-off, the defendants then having in use on board their said boat a machine called the throttle, to show with which the boat would run the longest under the same circumstances."

"And thereupon the said plaintiffs, confiding in the said promises and undertakings of the said defendants, at great cost, to-wit, at the cost of two hundred and fifty dollars, did erect and build and place on the said steamboat Columbia, at the request of the defendants,

Page 51 U. S. 421

a machine called 'Sickles' cut-off,' which said machine, and the same hath ever since, to-wit, from 20 August, 1844, continually, to the beginning of this action, been used by the said defendants in and upon the said boat, and that on 19 August, 1845, at the county aforesaid, the said plaintiffs gave notice to the said defendants that they would on the next day -- that is to say on 20 August, 1845 -- if they desired make the said experiment in the said agreement mentioned to test the relative value of the said machine, and for that purpose that one of the said plaintiffs would go from Washington to Baltimore in the said boat on the said 20 August, 1845, and make the said experiment, and the said defendants, by their president, did then and there assent thereto, and did direct the officers of the said boat, or some of them, to aid in conducting the said experiment, and the said plaintiffs in fact further say that one of the said plaintiffs, to-wit, the said Truman Cook, did, on the said 20 August, 1845, proceed in the said boat from the said City of Washington to Baltimore in the State of Maryland and did on the said voyage, with the assistance of the officers of the said boat, make the said experiment, and did take two piles of wood of equal dimensions and under like circumstances; the pile employed in the use of the throttle cut-off was burned in two hours and seven minutes; and the pile used by the cut-off of the plaintiffs lasted three hours and fifteen minutes, showing a saving in favor of the latter of 34 and 175/190 percent, of all which the said defendants had due notice, whereby a great amount and value of fuel has been saved by the said defendants, to-wit, the amount of twenty-five hundred dollars, and the said plaintiffs in fact say they were and are entitled to recover of and from the said defendants out of the said sum of money as well the said sum of two hundred and fifty dollars as and for the costs and expenses of erecting and building the said machine and placing the same on the said steamboat as also the further sum of sixteen hundred and eighty dollars and fifty cents, being three-fourths of the said savings within said period of time after the said machine was put in operation on the said boat, and while the same was used by the said defendants to the time of the bringing this suit, and being so entitled, the said plaintiffs, to-wit, on the day and year aforesaid and often afterwards, at the county aforesaid, demanded the whole of the said two sums of money, to-wit, the sum of nineteen hundred and thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents, of and from the said defendants, and the said defendants utterly neglected and refused to pay the same, or any part thereof, to the

Page 51 U. S. 422

said plaintiffs, and still refuse, to the damage of the plaintiffs four thousand dollars; and therefore they sue."

"JOSEPH H. BRADLEY, for Plaintiffs"

"Add a count for putting the machine on the boat at the request of the defendants, with a quantum meruit."

"JOSEPH H. BRADLEY, for Plaintiffs"

The defendants pleaded nonassumpsit, upon which issue was joined, and in March, 1847, the cause came on for trial.

The following is the evidence offered by the plaintiffs, which, being objected to by the defendants but admitted by the court, formed the subject of the exception to evidence.

"On the trial of this cause, the plaintiffs, to maintain the issue on their part joined, offered and gave evidence tending to show that on or about 18 June, 1844, at the county aforesaid, the said plaintiffs being the owners of the patent right to a certain machine called a cut-off, of which the said Frederick E. Sickles was the inventor, and the said defendants being the owners of the steamboat called the Columbia, on which they had in use a certain machine called the throttle cut-off, the object of both of said machines being to save the consumption of fuel in the use of steam engines, the said plaintiffs made and entered into a certain contract with William Gunton, the president of the steamboat company and the general agent thereof, whereby it was agreed that the said plaintiffs should construct and place on board the said steamboat one of their said machines at their own cost and expense, that the same should be tried, and if it produced any saving, that the cost of putting the said machine in operation on board the said boat, not to exceed two hundred and fifty dollars, should be first paid out of the savings of fuel effected by the said machine; that the said machine should be used by the defendants during the continuance of the patent, if the said boat should last so long; and after the payment of the said costs and expenses of putting the said machine in operation on board the said boat, the savings caused thereby, in the consumption of fuel, should be divided between the said plaintiffs and defendants in the proportion of one-fourth to the defendants and three-fourths to the plaintiffs; and in order to ascertain the amount of such savings, an experimental trial should be made at any time the plaintiffs should direct it, after the said machine was in successful operation, in the following mode: two piles of wood should be taken of equal dimensions; one pile should be used with one of the cut-offs, and the other pile with the other cut-off under like circumstances, and the length of time required in the consumption of the said

Page 51 U. S. 423

piles of wood, respectively, should be taken as the evidence of the difference in the amount of savings in the one over the other, and if the said machine produced no saving, it was to be taken off and the boat restored to its former condition at the expense of the plaintiffs."

"That the said contract was wholly in parol, and within three days after it was made, the plaintiffs entered into a contract in writing with T. W. and R. C. Smith, of Alexandria, by the said plaintiffs, as follows: (copied in record), and the said defendants caused their said boat to lie at Alexandria to have the said machine fitted to her engine; that the said T. W. and R. C. Smith proceeded with all convenient dispatch to make the said machine, and put the same on board the said boat at the cost of $242; that the same was completed and placed on board the said boat, and in complete action, on 9 November, 1844, with the knowledge of the defendants, and that the same was continually thereafter, to the bringing of this suit, used by the said defendants on board the said boat."

"That on 19 August, 1844, the said Truman Cook, one of the said plaintiffs, gave notice on board the said boat to the said defendants by William Gunton, president as aforesaid, that they desired on the next day, the same being the regular day for the passage of the said boat from the City of Washington to Baltimore, to go on the said trip and make the experiment, provided by their said contract, to ascertain the saving caused by the said machine, and the said William Gunton, president as aforesaid, directed the officers of the said boat, or one of them, to take care that the said Cook did not throw sand in his eyes; and on the said 20 August, 1844, the said Cook, one of said plaintiffs, did in fact go from the City of Washington to Baltimore on board the said boat, and the said experiment was in fact made, under the superintendence of the officers of said boat on behalf of said defendants, and by the said Cook on behalf of said plaintiffs, and the whole was, at the request of plaintiffs, carefully observed and noted by Captain Job Carson, for many years mate and captain of a steamboat, and the result of the said experiment was that the said machine of said plaintiffs caused a saving of fuel, over and above the said 'throttle cut-off,' of 34 175/190 percent, and full, minute, and accurate minutes of the said experiment, and of the result thereof, were taken and made in writing by the officers of the said boat, or one of them; that the average consumption of wood on her said trip to Baltimore was _____ cords, and on her trip from Baltimore was _____ cords, and the average price of wood, during the period she ran, from 9 November, 1844, to the bringing

Page 51 U. S. 424

of this suit was $_____, and, estimating the saving by the said machine at one-third, it amounted to $_____ up to the impetration of the writ in this case."

"The plaintiffs further gave evidence to show by practical and scientific engineers and builders of steam engines that the said experiment was the only mode by which the said savings could be ascertained with any degree of certainty; that it had been resorted to and tried by them; and one of them further proved that on the experiment conducted by him to test the difference between 'Sickles' cut-off' and the 'throttle cut-off,' in a large steamboat belonging to Baltimore, and having an engine of the same construction as that on board the Columbia, the saving of the former over the latter was 42 percent; and they further proved that they were acquainted with both of the said machines, both theoretically and practically, and that no engineer would hesitate to say that 'Sickles' cut-off' was far superior to the throttle and to any other with which they were acquainted."

"They further gave evidence to show that the said machine had been applied by the plaintiffs to four other steamboats belonging to the port of the City of Washington, and the saving of fuel caused thereby ranged from 18 to 33 percent on board the said boats respectively, and that the saving could not be ascertained by the amount of wood actually consumed without knowing and estimating the condition of the hull, and engine, and machinery, the state of the weather, the water, the freight, and the speed of the boat, and the only test was the experiment aforesaid, or one conducted on scientific principles which would give a proximate result."

"To introduction of which said evidence by practical and scientific engineers and others, builders of steam engines, tending to show the operation of the said cut-off, and the savings resulting therefrom on other boats, the defendants, by their counsel, objected because the same was inapplicable to the issue on the first count in the plaintiffs' declaration, and that the same could not be offered on the general counts unless the plaintiffs abandoned the first."

"Which objection the court overruled, and allowed the said evidence to go to the jury, to which ruling of the court the defendants, by their counsel, excepted and prayed that this their bill of exceptions may be signed and sealed, which is done this 25 March, 1847."

"JAS. S. MORSELL [SEAL]"

"JAS. DUNLOP [SEAL]"

The defendants then offered evidence which is all incorporated

Page 51 U. S. 425

into the bill of exceptions, but the following is that part upon which the prayer to the court below rested, involving the point which was argued in this Court.

"The defendants, to support the issue on their part, called William Gunton, late president of the defendants' company, who being first sworn on his voire dire, stated that he had resigned the office of president of said company, and sold and transferred all the stock he held therein, and that he was in no way interested in the event of this suit between the said plaintiffs and the defendants, and the said witness, being sworn in chief, testified that he did not, as president of said company or otherwise, make with the said plaintiffs the contract for the use of the cut-off called Sickles' cut-off on board the defendants' steamboat called the Columbia as the same is set forth in the first count in the plaintiffs' declaration; that sometime in the spring of the year 1844 he first met with Truman Cook, one of the plaintiffs, and after having conversed several times with the said Cook on the subject of the application of the said cut-off to the engine on board the said boat, the said Cook stated that he was very desirous the bring the cut-off to the favorable notice of the officers of the government with the view of introducing the same into use on board the national steamships and other steam vessels sailing on the waters of the River Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay; that he, as president of the defendants' company, agreed with the said Cook that he might place, at his own expense, the said cut-off on the engine of the said boat, and that if, on trial of the same on board the said boat, the said cut-off should be approved of, and the defendants should wish to purchase the same, the terms of such purchase should be afterwards determined on between the said parties; but if the said cut-off should not be approved of, or the terms proposed by said Cook for the use of the same by the said defendants on their said boat should be such that the said defendants could not accede thereto, the said Cook was to take the said cut-off from the said boat at his own expense and restore the engine on the said boat to the same condition in which it was before the application of the said cut-off thereto; that the said cut-off was placed on the said engine pursuant to such last-mentioned agreement and not in pursuance of any such agreement as is mentioned in the first count of the plaintiffs' declaration; that afterwards, and when the witness, still being president of defendants' said company, had had an opportunity to form some idea of the value of the said cut-off, he conversed with said Cook respecting the terms on which the same might be purchased for the use of the defendants on board the said boat, and the said Cook informed

Page 51 U. S. 426

the said witness that the defendants should have the use of the said machine on as favorable terms as the same had been disposed of to the owners of the steamboat Augusta or any other steamboat, but did not then or at any other time inform the witness at what price the same had been sold to the said steamboat Augusta, or any other steamboat, or make any such definite proposition for the sale of the said machine to the defendants as would enable him to lay the same before the board of directors of the said company for their approval, and that the defendants have at no time refused the said Cook or the plaintiffs permission to remove the same from the engine on board the said boat and restore the said engine to its former condition."

The prayer to the circuit court founded on this evidence was as follows:

"Whereupon the defendants, by their counsel, prayed the court to instruct the jury that if the jury believe from the evidence that the defendants agreed with the plaintiffs that they, the said plaintiffs, might, at their own expense, place the cut-off, called Sickles' cut-off, on the engine of the defendants' boat, called the Columbia, that they, the said plaintiffs, might exhibit the qualities and usefulness of the said machine to the public and thereby facilitate the introduction of the same into use on board the national steamships and other steam vessels sailing on the waters of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, and that if on the trial of the same on board the Columbia, the said cut-off should be approved of and the defendants should wish to purchase the same, the terms of said purchase should be afterwards determined on between the said parties, but if the said cut-off should not be approved of or the terms proposed by the plaintiffs to the defendants for the use thereof should be such that the said defendants could not accede thereto, the said plaintiffs were to take the said cut-off from the said boat at their own expense and reinstate the boat and her engine in the same condition in which she was before the application of the said cut-off thereto, and that the said cut-off was placed on the said boat pursuant to said agreement and permission as aforesaid and not pursuant to any such contract as is set out in the first count in the plaintiffs' declaration, and that the said plaintiffs have made no definite proposition to the said defendants for the sale and use of the said cut-off and have not been refused permission by the defendants to remove the same from their said boat, then the plaintiffs are not entitled to recover in this action although the jury should believe from the evidence that the said machine was approved of, and

Page 51 U. S. 427

has been used by the said defendants, which instruction the court refused to give, there being only two judges on the bench and they being divided in opinion on said instruction, to which refusal the defendants by their counsel excepted and prayed the court that this their bill of exceptions may be signed and sealed, which is done this 25 May, 1847."

"JAS. S. MORSELL [SEAL]"

"JAS. DUNLOP [SEAL]"

Amongst the evidence brought forward by the defendants were the two following letters, which are inserted here because they are remarked upon by the Court in the decision of the remaining exception.

"W. Gunton to Sickles & Cook"

"As I am, week after week, annoyed by warrants, under a pretended contract never entered into by me respecting the cut-off placed under your direction on the steamer Columbia, and as I have repeatedly explained in writing, both to Messrs. T. W. & R. C. Smith, of Alexandria, and Mr. A. T. Smith, of this city, your agent, or attorney, what the understanding between Mr. Cook and myself was in relation to the subject, and have expressed my willingness to comply therewith, I hereby give you notice that unless you, within ten days from this date, remove the aforesaid cut-off from the Columbia and replace, agreeably to that understanding, her machinery in the same condition in which it was immediately before the cut-off was applied thereto, I shall promptly thereafter cause the work to be done at your expense and hold you liable for the same in addition to the amount of expense incurred and loss sustained by reason of the detentions of the Columbia mentioned in my letters to your agent, Mr. A. T. Smith, before alluded to."

"W. GUNTON, President"

"Washington City, 14 April, 1841"

"MESSRS. SICKLES & COOK"

"Reply to the above"

"DR. WILLIAM GUNTON, President:"

"We have received your note of the 14th instant, and hasten to reply to it to avoid any future misapprehension on your part of the positions we respectively hold. You have chosen to make terms entirely different from those under which we contracted with you; have refused to execute your contract with us; have driven us to the necessity of a suit; and we are now resolved to bring the matter to an issue. "

Page 51 U. S. 428

"You complain that you are annoyed by warrants. It is your own fault. You say that you have repeatedly [stated] to Messrs. T. W. and R. C. Smith, Alexandria, and Mr. A. T. Smith, of this city, what the understanding between Mr. Cook and yourself was in relation to this subject, and have expressed yourself willing to comply therewith. We have, as often as occasion and opportunity offered, stated to you in the plainest terms that your representations thus made were not the terms of our contract, and have as clearly and distinctly stated to you what that contract was. We now repeat it. We undertook to put Sickles' cut-off on the engine of the steamer Columbia, and offered to receive $1,000 for the right to use it. You, seeming to doubt the importance of the invention, declined that offer, and we then offered to put the cut-off on, taking as a compensation for its use the value of three-fourths of the fuel saved by its use, deducting from the first savings $250 for the construction of the machine, the savings to be ascertained by either of us by experiments with our cut-off and the old one attached to the engine of the Columbia, and you were to continue the use of our cut-off, provided we made it work well, so long as the boat continued to belong to your company. We employed the Messrs. Smith to construct the machine. These terms you accepted in the most unequivocal manner. This was all they had to do with it. They did make it, and it was applied, and has operated successfully. Persons were directed on board the boat to make accurate observations of the saving. It was found to be far greater than you had any idea of. We asked for compensation, and you denied the contract. Your own acts have compelled us to bring suit, and, in order to bring the matter to a close after that suit was brought, we took out a warrant against your company so that either party might, by appeal, bring the question at once before the court for judicial decision. These are resisted on technical grounds, and now you give us notice to remove the cut-off. However much we might be disposed to avoid litigation and to terminate all controversy by an amicable adjustment, the course you have taken has determined us, and we now give you notice that we will not only not interfere with the cut-off on board the Columbia, and hereby protest against your interfering with it, but we will every week bring an action to recover the amount of saving coming to us on the terms of our contract with you. Until we can get a judicial decision in the matter, you must choose for yourself."

"SICKLES & COOK"

"Washington, 15 April, 1846 "

Page 51 U. S. 429

The remaining prayer to the circuit court was as follows:

"The defendants, by their counsel, further prayed the court to instruct the jury that if the jury believes from the evidence that the contract set out in the first count of the declaration, and alleged to have been made by the plaintiffs and William Gunton, the president of the defendants' said company, was never authorized by a board or quorum of the directors of said company, as provided by their charter of incorporation, and was never sanctioned or approved of by said board or quorum of the said directors, and that the said William Gunton, in making such contract with the plaintiffs, if the jury believes the same to have been made by him, did not act within the scope of his authority as such president, then the said contract is void as respects the said defendants, and the said plaintiffs are not entitled to recover under the said first count in their declaration, which instruction the court refused, but granted the same, with the following modification: but if, from the evidence, the jury shall find that William Gunton, the president of the defendants' company, and acting as their general agent, made with the plaintiffs the contract set out in the first count of the said declaration, and that the plaintiffs, under the said contract, put the said machine on the defendants' boat, and the same was used by the defendants at the time and times mentioned in the said count, and that the same was beneficial to the defendants, then the plaintiffs are entitled to recover on the said first count notwithstanding the jury shall find that the terms of the said contract were not communicated to the defendants, and the said William Gunton reported to the said defendants a different contract, to which refusal of the said instruction and modification thereof the defendants by their counsel excepted and prayed that the their bill of exceptions may be signed and sealed, which is done this 25 May, 1847."

"JAS. S. MORSELL [SEAL]"

"JAS. DUNLOP [SEAL]"

The jury found a verdict for the plaintiffs, and assessed the damages at $1,800, with interest from 9 November, 1845. A writ of error brought these several rulings of the circuit court before this Court for revision.

Page 51 U. S. 437

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