Field v. Farrington
77 U.S. 141 (1869)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Field v. Farrington, 77 U.S. 10 Wall. 141 141 (1869)

Field v. Farrington

77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 141

Syllabus

1. In a suit between a consignor and his factors, who had made advances on the consignment nearly equal to its value, the allegation of the consignor being noncompliance by the factors with his order to sell, the alleged order, however, having been but a verbal one, and a conflict of testimony existing as to whether such an order was given at all -- an instruction was rightly refused to the consignor which rested the liability of the factor on the bare fact of an order to sell and which made no allusion either to the large advances or to the fact that, three weeks after the alleged order to sell was given, the factors wrote to their consignor a letter informing him that they had not sold his goods, as the market had been dull and on the decline every day since he left them; that the goods would not then sell for more than so much (a decline from former prices); that they would be compelled to sell unless he made other shipments or remitted in cash as a margin, the money market being tight; that they had held on thus far to meet his views, but that the declining tendency of the market induced them to write, and asking to hear from him on his receipt of their letter, which letter the consignor received and purposely declined to answer.

2. Where factors have made large advances or incurred expenses on account of the consignment, the principal cannot by any subsequent orders control their right to sell at such a time as in the exercise of a sound discretion, and in accordance with the usage of trade, they may deem best to secure indemnity to themselves and to promote the interests of the consignor, they acting, of course, in good faith and with reasonable skill.

3. The effect of the refusal by the consignor to reply to such a letter as the one mentioned in the first paragraph above, within a reasonable time after he received it, was to raise a presumption that he approved of what his factors had done, so far as their letter informed him, and in the absence of anything to rebut that presumption, he was to be regarded as having consented to whatever delay had occurred in effecting a sale, even though the delay was contrary to his directions.

4. The receipt and nonacknowledgment of such a letter would not, however, relieve the factors from a continuing obligation to sell within a reasonable time, all the circumstances of the case being considered, and at the best prices that could be obtained.

Page 77 U. S. 142

Hence where, after writing such a letter, the factors did not sell for nearly ten months afterwards, the market declining all the while, held that though the letter was never acknowledged, it was a question which should have been submitted to the jury, whether this long delay to sell in view of a market falling the whole time, was in the exercise of sound discretion, good faith, and reasonable diligence, and that an instruction that the consignor should bear all losses sustained after his refusal to answer the factors' letter without excepting such portion of the loss as might have been caused by the factors' fault, was error. This notwithstanding that the court charged that, as a general principle, the factors were found to use due diligence, care, and skill in the sale of the goods, and to obey instructions given to them by the consignors in regard to the sale, this charge not having been given by way of qualification to the specific instructions previously given.

Feild, a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas, owning a quantity of cotton, put it, personally, on the 9th October, 1865, into the hands of Farrington & Howell, commission merchants of Memphis, Tennessee, with directions to sell it; cotton being then worth not less than 50 cents a pound. On the next day, being not on his way homeward, he telegraphed to them, "Do not sell my cotton till I see you." The market at this time was excited, and higher than at any subsequent time. A short time after this, Feild returned to Memphis, and being about to visit the Eastern cities, requested Farrington & Co. to make him an advance of $11,000 on the cotton, which they made him. The advance was very nearly if not quite equal to its value. He then went to the Eastern cities. According to the testimony of Farrington, by whom the business of the firm with Feild was chiefly managed, Feild, on that occasion, left the cotton "to be sold at their discretion; but expressed great confidence in higher prices," and according to the same testimony, on his return from the Eastern cities, approved of the course of the firm in not selling, and "said he would appreciate it, and remember it in future." The market was all this time rather a declining one, and the firm justified whatever of irregularity their action in not selling in the face of their

Page 77 U. S. 143

quite large advance might be supposed to have, on the ground, sworn to by Farrington, "that Mr. Feild was always represented to them as entirely solvent and able to pay his debts, and that they wished to follow his own views about the sale." Feild, it was testified, had promised them, when making this one, further consignments.

According to the testimony of Feild, however, he gave Farrington & Co., when he was going to the Eastern cities, express instructions to sell within ten days, and to reimburse themselves for the money advanced, which according to his testimony they promised to do. Feild's testimony proceeded thus:

"I then went East and returned in about fourteen or fifteen days to Memphis, where I only made an hour's stay on my way home to Little Rock, which I occupied in seeing the firm. Cotton had declined one cent on the pound since I had told them to sell, and I remonstrated with them for not having sold. They excused themselves by saying that they had only been acting for my interest, which excuse I accepted. I, however, renewed my instructions, and the last words I said to Mr. Farrington, on shaking hands with him, were these: 'Whatever you do, do not let the cotton fall one cent lower.'"

This the witness testified was between the 25th and the 28th of October, 1865. Nothing further took place till the 16th of November following, when cotton having declined, the firm thus addressed Feild:

"MEMPHIS, November 16, 1865"

"DEAR SIR: We have not sold your cotton, as the market has been dull and on the decline every day since you left. The dispatches from New York yesterday quote middling cotton about 50c., and very dull. The public dispatches quote 50 at 51c., while the private give 49 at 50. Your cotton would not, in the present market, sell here for over 43 at 44c. As the money market is very tight, we will be compelled to sell your cotton unless you make other shipments, or remit us as a margin in cash."

"We have held on thus far to meet your views, but the declining

Page 77 U. S. 144

tendency of the market induces us to write this letter. Please to let us hear from you on receipt."

"Very truly, your friends,"

"FARRINGTON & HOWELL.\"

This letter Feild received, but never answered or in any way took notice of. Referring in his testimony on the trial to his receipt of it, and to his omission to answer, he said thus:

"I was surprised to learn that the cotton had not been sold. I thought the plaintiffs had made themselves liable by their neglect to sell. I was afraid to answer their letter, as I regarded it as a mere endeavor to obtain some admission or concession from me; and I concluded to abandon the matter, leaving them with whatever responsibility they might have incurred. Cotton had fallen in the market, and I did not feel disposed to make myself a party to their delinquency."

Nothing further was said or written, on either side, till August 8th (nearly nine months after the preceding letter), when cotton still declining the firm wrote again to Feild thus:

"MEMPHIS, August 8, 1866"

"DEAR SIR: We have been much astonished at not bearing from you in regard to your cotton. We wrote you on the subject, and requested a reply, but have heard nothing from you. By the same mail we wrote to other parties in your city, and we received due acknowledgment. This was many months ago, date not recollected. When you left your cotton here you were not satisfied with the market, although that was about 50c. When you returned from the Northern cities, you approved of our efforts to promote your interest, and that the cotton had not been sold. The price has greatly declined, and the expenses have been going on. Now let us hear your views. The cotton will not pay your account, as you know, and we ask you to remit us for the balance. According to the present market the cotton would be well sold at 32c., including internal revenue. We have now waited to meet your views until it is necessary for something to be done. Will you please write us on receipt of this, for we are anxious to hear from you?"

"Very respectfully,"

"FARRINGTON & HOWELL"

Page 77 U. S. 145

This letter the firm enclosed to one of their correspondents at Little Rock (Feild's residence), in order that it might be certainly delivered to him, and it was delivered, and the firm advised accordingly. Of this second letter Feild took no notice; stating in his testimony on the trial that he had omitted to do so for the same reason that he had omitted to take notice of the first one.

About five weeks afterwards, that is to say, on the 12th September, 1866, cotton having gradually declined from the month in which it was put into the lands of Farrington & Co. till now, they sold it all; the chief part at 30 cents a pound, and the residue at 25 and 20 cents. "The cotton was sold at this time," said Farrington in his testimony,

"because we had despaired hearing of Mr. Feild, who appeared to us to have abandoned it, and to have had no intention of assuming the control of it, or of paying us the amount he owed us. . . . I had but one wish,"

he continued, "and that was to act in a manner which would be satisfactory to Mr. Feild."

Feild was immediately advised by letter of the sale, and that low as the prices obtained seemed, the sale was at the highest rates of the then market, and that the firm would send account sales and account as soon as the cotton was delivered. To this letter Feild paid no attention.

Five days afterwards, that is to say, on the 17th September, 1866, the cotton being now delivered, the firm sent the accounts, and drew for $6,695, the difference between the sum due on the advance made in October, 1865, and the sum for which the cotton was now sold. Feild took no notice of this letter, and refused payment of the draft.

Whereupon in January, 1867, Farrington & Howell sued him in the court below for the balance.

On the trial, the defendant asked the court to give the following instructions, to-wit:

"1. If the jury find from the evidence that, after the cotton was placed in the hands of the plaintiffs, Feild gave them instructions to sell before the price should fall any lower, and that

Page 77 U. S. 146

the plaintiffs failed to do so, then the plaintiffs must suffer any loss occasioned by reason of their failure to sell at that time, and Feild is entitled to a credit for the amount that the cotton would have brought if sold at the time such instructions were given."

"2. If the jury find from the evidence that the cotton was left by the defendant in the hands of the plaintiffs to sell without any specific orders as to the time and mode of sale, and that the plaintiffs had made large advances on account of said cotton, then the plaintiffs were bound to sell, in the exercise of a sound discretion, at such time and in such mode as the usage of trade might require, and to reimburse themselves for their advances out of the proceeds of the sale, and the defendant could not, by his silence, prevent the plaintiffs from making such sale; and if the jury find from the evidence that the plaintiffs did not exercise a sound discretion in the premises, and kept the cotton on hand for an unreasonable and improper length of time, then the defendant is entitled to a credit for the amount which it would have brought, if sold in accordance with the usage of trade and the exercise of such discretion."

"3. If the jury find from the evidence that the cotton was shipped by the defendant to the plaintiffs as commission merchants to be sold, and that the plaintiffs made large advancements on the same, and that the plaintiffs wrote to the defendant that, unless other shipments were made them, or the defendant made them remittances in cash, they would sell the cotton, then, on the failure of defendant to write to plaintiffs in reply, the plaintiffs were bound to sell the cotton in a reasonable time, and the defendant is entitled to a credit on the plaintiffs' demand for the amount which the cotton would have brought, if sold within a reasonable time after the failure of the defendant to answer said letter."

But the court refused to give these instructions, or any of them, and in lieu thereof, instructed the jury:

"That in case they find that defendant gave the plaintiffs instructions orally to sell the cotton before any further fall in the price, and that the plaintiffs failed to do so, but afterwards, on the 16th day of November, 1865, wrote the letter of that date, and that Feild refused to answer the same, then the plaintiffs are responsible for any loss sustained by reason of the fall in

Page 77 U. S. 147

prices up to the time of the failure of the defendant to reply to said letter, but all losses sustained after that time must be borne by the defendant."

The court also charged that, as a general principle, the plaintiffs, as factors, were bound to use due diligence, care, and skill in the sale of the cotton committed to them for sale, and that it was their duty to obey instructions given them by defendant in regard to a sale.

Exceptions were taken to the refusal to charge as asked, and to the charge as given, and verdict and judgment having gone for the plaintiffs, in $5,690, the defendant brought the case here, where it was submitted on briefs.

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