Mayor v. Sheffield - 71 U.S. 189 (1866)
U.S. Supreme Court
Mayor v. Sheffield, 71 U.S. 4 Wall. 189 189 (1866)
Mayor v. Sheffield
71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 189
1. Where a corporation is sued for an injury growing out of negligence of the corporate authorities in their care of the streets of the corporation, they cannot defend themselves on the ground that the formalities of the statute were not pursued in establishing the street originally.
2. If the authorities of a city or town have treated a place as a public street, taking charge of it and regulating it as they do other streets, they cannot, when sued for such injury, defend themselves by alleging want of authority in establishing the street.
The action below was brought by W. P. Sheffield, against the Mayor &c., of New York, to recover damages for injuries received by him from stumbling over a stump at the
edge of the sidewalk around the lower end of the City Hall Park in the City of New York.
Upon the trial it appeared that on the 16th December, 1857, Sheffield, while crossing, in the evening, the lower end of the City Hall Park, fell over a stump above the level of the sidewalk and broke his thigh-bone; that the stump was about fourteen inches distant from the curb of the sidewalk, and was about six inches high and four inches in diameter at the top.
It also appeared that the place where the stump stood was, prior to the 18th November, 1847, and had been for more than thirty years, within and a portion of the City Hall Park, but that on the day just named, the Common Council of New York adopted an ordinance authorizing the Committee on Lands and Places, together with the street commissioner, to adjust the lower corner line of the Park so as to make a curve &c., and that under this ordinance -- to the reading of which the counsel of the city, for reasons which will appear in the argument, excepted -- the committee and street commissioner shortened the Park twenty feet, cut down a tree there, and threw those twenty feet -- within which the stump of the tree -- the stump which had caused the accident, stood -- into the public street.
The court charged thus:
"The corporate authority of New York, by virtue of their charter and of the laws, have the charge and control of the streets and sidewalks within the corporate limits, and they are bound to keep them in good and safe condition. If they leave an opening in the sidewalk, as is sometimes done, and a person coming along in the night falls into it without any want of proper care on his part, the defendants are liable for any injury that may be occasioned. So if an obstruction on the face of the sidewalk, over which a person stumbles -- boxes, if you please -- left out on the sidewalk on a dark night, or barrels, over which a person stumbles and falls, in the absence of want of care on his part, the defendants are equally liable for the injury. The opening in the one case and the obstruction in the other constitute the negligence, are evidence of negligence on the part of
the authorities who have the control of the matter, and in order to escape from the charge of liability, the burden is thrown upon them to disprove negligence."
"If the plaintiff in this class of cases has been himself guilty of negligence, and which materially contributed to the injury, then he cannot recover, even if the defendants have been shown to be guilty of negligence. The plaintiff must be free from fault. "