Goodrich v. The City
72 U.S. 566 (1866)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Goodrich v. The City, 72 U.S. 5 Wall. 566 566 (1866)

Goodrich v. The City

72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 566

ERROR TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR

THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS

Syllabus

1. Where a matter is directly in issue and adjudged in a court of common law, that judgment may be set up as an estoppel in a court of admiralty.

2. Where an action is brought in a state court against a city for its neglect to do a public duty imposed on it by law (as ex. gr. to keep its harbor free from obstructions hidden under water), the declaration going upon its neglect to do the thing at all, a judgment in such state court that it was not bound to do the thing at all may be used as an estoppel in another suit (a libel in admiralty) where the allegation of the libel is that, being bound to keep the river clear, the city began to clear it -- entered upon its duty -- but never finished the work, by which neglect to finish it the injury occurred, the cause of action being otherwise the same.

Goodrich filed a libel in the District Court, against the City of Chicago, in personam.

The libel alleged that he was the owner of the steamer Huron, and that on the 27th of March, 1857, while leaving the port of Chicago, the vessel ran against a sunken wreck in the Chicago River and was sunk; that prior to this damage done, the city had been vested with exclusive jurisdiction over the river as a common public navigable river and highway by the State of Illinois, and with all the necessary means to provide funds for defraying the expenses incident thereto; that the city accepted the act of the legislature, and had ever since assumed the exclusive jurisdiction and control over the river harbor; that on the 20th day of May, 1856, the city had passed an ordinance for the removal, without delay, of any obstruction to free navigation by which it was ordained that whenever there should be in the harbor

Page 72 U. S. 567

any vessel insecurely fastened, adrift, sunken &c., and which might require to be fastened, raised &c., IT SHOULD BE THE DUTY of the harbor master to secure, raise, or remove such vessel WITHOUT DELAY; that in April, 1856, the city appointed one Ingalls harbor master under the said ordinance, and at the time of said damage he was such harbor master, vested with full control and management of the harbor, and that it was his duty, as agent of the said city, to remove all such obstructions to the free and safe navigation of said harbor; that in November, 1856, a schooner had been sunk near the mouth of the river, and became an obstruction to the safe navigation of it; that the city assumed the exclusive right to remove the same, and did, by their said harbor master, undertake and commence the removal of the said sunken wreck, by hitching thereto a steam tug, and thereby attempting to raise and remove the same as they were bound to do, but did not complete the work, nor raise and remove the said wreck, as they had exclusively undertaken to do, but worked on the said sunken vessel, endeavoring to raise the same, and pulled several pieces of timber from the said vessel in the attempt to raise and remove her, but without raising or removing the same, did (as the libellants believed), loosen the said vessel in its bed; and negligently and carelessly left the vessel until the 29th of March, 1857, by means whereof during that time, by the action of the winds and currents, the wreck became drifted further into the channel of the river, and during all the time aforesaid was kept in the channel by the respondent under water, so that the same could not be seen, and without fixing or placing any buoy or signal to mark the place of the said sunken wreck, and that in consequence of the negligence of the city, the said steamer Huron ran on to said sunken wreck and was sunk, in ignorance of its locality and without fault on her part, with damage to the libellants of $19,487.

The respondent having set up as defenses, want of jurisdiction in the district court; that the city was not liable on the facts of the case, and was not under any legal obligation to remove the sunken vessel, and that the accident had occurred through carelessness and unskillful conduct of the Huron, added to them by way of estoppel, the fact of a former judgment

Page 72 U. S. 568

on demurrer to the declaration, in an action on the case between the same parties in the Supreme Court of Illinois.

The declaration in the suit thus set up as an estoppel alleged:

1. That under a statute of the state of Illinois of February 14, 1851, [Footnote 1] it became the duty of the city to remove and prevent all obstructions in the Chicago River and harbor, and that the city was authorized to levy and collect taxes for that purpose.

2. That the city assumed to discharge the duties imposed, and for that purpose levied and collected taxes, and controlled and regulated the said river and harbor, and that by means thereof and by the said state statute, it became and was its duty to remove and prevent all obstructions therein.

3. That the city undertook and entered unto the discharge of its duties and obligations by the passage of necessary ordinances, rules, and regulations, authorized by the act of 1851, whereby it became and was its duty to remove all obstructions &c.

4. That the Chicago River and harbor was a public highway and navigable stream, and that the city, not regarding its duty in the premises, on the 29th of March, 1857, and for five months prior thereto, had negligently and carelessly suffered and permitted the obstruction spoken of to remain in the river, and that the city, although knowing that the wreck was under water and out of sight, neglected to place any buoy or signal thereon to indicate its position.

5. That by reason of the premises, on or about the 29th day of March, 1857, the Huron in passing through the river was accidentally and without any want of care and skill on the part of the owners, or those in charge of her, run on or against the said sunken wreck.

And it appeared that, on a demurrer to this declaration, judgment had been rendered finally in the supreme court of the state for the city. [Footnote 2]

Page 72 U. S. 569

The district court held judgment in the supreme court of the state no estoppel; and the case being deemed otherwise clear, gave judgment for the libellant.

On appeal to the circuit court, that court held, that the decision in the state court was "an authoritative adjudication, denying that there is an obligation imposed by law on the City of Chicago to remove obstructions from its river and harbor," and that it was thus decisive, against the libellants, of the present action. The decree of the district court was accordingly reversed -- the circuit court (Davis, J) expressing at the same time the opinion "that the facts of the case would sustain the claim made by the libellants, if the court was relieved from the embarrassment" of the decision referred to, and stating further

"that if this question was an open one in Illinois, the court should have no hesitation in holding that a legal obligation is imposed on the city to remove obstructions from the river, and that it is bound to make full redress to every person injured by reason of its failure to perform its duty; that the true interest of commerce and the best interests of the city would be promoted by such a construction, and that it is sanctioned by principle and authority."

The case was now here on appeal from this decree by the circuit court reversing the former one of the district court.

Page 72 U. S. 573

MR. JUSTICE SWAYNE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In the view which we have taken of the case, it will be necessary to consider but a single point.

The appellants filed their libel to recover damages for the sinking of their steamer Huron in the Chicago River near its mouth. The casualty was caused by the steamer's running against a sunken wreck. The libel alleges that it was the duty of the city to have it removed and that it was guilty of negligence in not having done so. It alleges further that the city entered upon the work of removal but abandoned it before the result was accomplished.

Among the defenses set up by the answer of the respondent was that of a final judgment in the Supreme Court of Illinois, upon a general demurrer to a declaration in an action at law by the appellants against the respondent for the same cause of action.

The court below sustained the defense, and upon this ground, and another not necessary to be stated, dismissed the libel.

The record of the action at law is found among the proofs in this case. Upon a careful examination of the declaration

Page 72 U. S. 574

and of the libel, we are constrained to say, there is no such difference in the cases which they respectively make as can take this case out of the operation of the principles of res adjudicata. [Footnote 3]

Whatever the result might be here, if this obstacle were out of the way, we have no choice but to apply the law in this as in other cases.

Decree affirmed with costs.

[Footnote 1]

The same statute referred to in the libel in admiralty.

[Footnote 2]

Goodrich v. City, 20 Ill. 445.

[Footnote 3]

Duchess of Kingston's Case and the notes, 2 Smith's Leading Cases 424; Bendernagle v. Cocks, 19 Wendell 208.

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