Smith v. Carrington
8 U.S. 62 (1807)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Smith v. Carrington, 8 U.S. 4 Cranch 62 62 (1807)

Smith v. Carrington

8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 62

ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF

THE DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND

Syllabus

A witness interested to diminish certain admitted items in the plaintiff's account is still a competent witness to disprove other items.

The defendant having read a letter from the plaintiff's agent in answer to a letter from himself cannot give in evidence a copy of his own letter without proving it to be a true copy by a witness.

To introduce into a cause the copy of any paper, the truth of that paper must be established and sufficient reasons for the nonproduction of the original must be given.

The court is bound to give an opinion to the jury on a question of law upon request if it be pertinent to the issue, but not if it involve a question of fact.

This was an action of assumpsit brought by the plaintiffs in error, subjects of Hamburgh, to recover the balance due upon an account current, the debit side of which consisted principally of the following charges, viz., insurance made in Hamburgh on the defendants' ship Abigail from the United States to Hamburgh, and on the ship and cargo from Hamburgh to the Havana, and on an intended voyage back from the Havana to Hamburgh; advances made to the defendants to make up a cargo to the Havana; bills of exchange accepted and paid; cash advanced, and commissions, charges, and interest.

Page 8 U. S. 63

The credit side consisted chiefly of the proceeds of the freight of the ship and of sundry articles of merchandise; remittances by bills of exchange; the sales of the ship (she having been condemned and sold in London by virtue of a bottomry bond given by the defendants to the plaintiffs), and of five percent of the premium of insurance on the intended return voyage from the Havana to Hamburgh, the same having been returned by the underwriters to the plaintiffs, in consequence of the ship's having finished her voyage in the United States instead of returning to Hamburgh.

At the trial below, the plaintiffs took a bill of exceptions, which stated,

1st. That the defendants offered as a witness one Peleg Remington, who had become jointly and severally bound with the defendant Carrington in a bottomry or respondentia bond to the plaintiffs in the sum of $31,950, conditioned to pay to the plaintiffs that sum on the return of the ship to Hamburgh, the same being the amount advanced by the plaintiffs to the defendants in Hamburgh, and that the ship should so return, for which advance, with other demands, this action was brought. To the admission of which witness the plaintiffs objected, contending that he was interested to diminish the balance due from the defendants to the plaintiffs. But the defendants insisted he was a competent witness as to all the items of the account except the advances for which he was bound, particularly with respect to a charge of $13,718.56 for premium of insurance on the intended return voyage from the Havana to Hamburgh, and which voyage the defendants contended was never begun, and therefore they ought not to be charged with that premium, and especially as the defendants had expressly waived all objections to every other part of the plaintiffs' account. Whereupon the said witness was suffered by the court to testify as to the charge of that premium only. The bill of exceptions states it as admitted that by the law of Hamburgh, the underwriters are not bound to return the premium upon a change of the voyage unless that change be notified before the vessel sails.

Page 8 U. S. 64

2d. That the defendants offered in evidence a paper purporting to be a copy of a letter from the defendant Carrington to Smith & Ridgeway of Philadelphia, the correspondents of the plaintiffs, and a letter from Smith & Ridgeway to Carrington purporting to be an answer thereunto, but gave no proof that the said copy of Carrington's letter was a true copy of the original, but it was not denied to be in his handwriting, and it was proved that he was in Canton, and not in the United States, at the time of trial, and had been in Canton for two years before, but had been corresponded with on the subject of this action since its commencement. Whereupon the court permitted the copy and the letter to go in evidence to the jury.

3d. The plaintiffs, after stating in the bill of exceptions and referring to all the testimony and other evidence in the case, but not stating distinctly the material facts which they supposed to be the result of that testimony and evidence and on which their prayer was founded, prayed the court to declare its opinion to the jury whether, if the plaintiffs had actually paid the premium to the underwriters before notice of the change of the destination of the ship, they had a right "under the circumstances of the case" to recover the same of the defendants. But the court refused to deliver an opinion particularly thereon.

4th. The bill of exceptions further stated that the court, prior to the request last mentioned, declared to the jury that

"The case wholly turned upon the point whether or not the defendants had given due and seasonable notice of the change of the destination of said ship. That it was a question proper for the jury to decide whether such due and seasonable notice had been given, and that if they were of opinion that it had been so given, on considering the whole of the evidence, they ought not to allow the plaintiff's said charge for the said premium, and with that direction left the same to the jury, and the jury aforesaid then and there gave their verdict for the plaintiffs for the sum of $13,677.08 only, and disallowed the said charge and demand of the plaintiffs for the said premium

Page 8 U. S. 65

of insurance, except one-half percent which the jury allowed."

The errors assigned by the plaintiffs in error were

1st. That the court admitted Remington to testify to the point and under the circumstances mentioned in the bill of exceptions.

2d. That the court admitted the writing purporting to be a copy of a letter from the defendant Carrington to Smith & Ridgeway, and a writing purporting to be a letter from Smith & Ridgeway to the said Carrington, to be read in evidence, as stated in the bill of exceptions.

3d. That the court directed the jury that the case turned wholly upon the point whether due and seasonable notice had been given by the defendants of the change of the voyage, as stated in the bill of exceptions, and that this was wholly a question of fact which it was their exclusive province to determine.

4th. That the court refused to direct the jury, in case it was fully proved to their satisfaction, that the plaintiffs had paid the premium in question previous to any notice or information whatever of the change of the voyage, as stated in the bill of exceptions, that they were entitled to recover of the defendants.

Page 8 U. S. 69

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case comes up on exceptions to certain opinions given by the judges of the Circuit Court of Rhode Island at the trial of the cause before them.

The first exception is to the admission of Peleg Remington as a witness.

This exception appeared to be abandoned by the counsel in reply, and is indeed so perfectly untenable that the Court will only observe that Peleg Remington does not appear to have been interested in the event of the cause in which he deposed, but certainly was not interested in the particular fact to which he was required to depose, and was therefore clearly a competent witness.

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The second exception is taken to the opinion of the court admitting as evidence a paper purporting to be the copy of a letter written by the defendant Carrington to Smith & Ridgeway of Philadelphia, the correspondents of the plaintiffs, and also a letter from Smith & Ridgeway to the defendant Carrington purporting to be an answer to the said letter.

To the admission of the letter of Smith & Ridgeway no just objection appears. The verity of that letter is acknowledged on the face of the bill of exceptions, and no cause is stated why it should not have been read to the jury. But the admission of the copy of a letter written by one of the defendants stands upon totally different ground.

To introduce into a cause the copy of any paper, the truth of that copy must be established and sufficient reasons for the nonproduction of the original must be shown.

If in this case the answer of Smith & Ridgeway had authenticated the whole letter of Carrington, the copy of that letter need not have been offered, since its whole contents would have been proved by the answer to it. If its whole contents were not proved by the answer, then the part not so proved was totally unauthenticated, and may have formed no part of the original letter. In this case, the answer cannot have authenticated the copy, because the bill states that the defendants gave no proof of its being true. This copy therefore, not being proved to be a true copy, ought not to have gone before the jury. Into its importance or operation this Court cannot inquire. It was improper testimony, and a verdict founded on improper testimony cannot stand.

For this error the judgment must be reversed and the cause remanded to the circuit Court of Rhode Island to be again tried.

The third exception is taken to the refusal of the court to give an opinion on a question stated by the counsel for the plaintiffs. The difficulty of deciding on this exception does not arise from any doubt which

Page 8 U. S. 71

ought to have been produced by the facts in the cause, but from the manner in which the question was propounded to the court.

After a long and complex statement of the testimony, the counsel for the plaintiffs requested the court to declare whether,

"if the plaintiffs had actually paid the said premium to the underwriters before any notice of the change of the destination of the ship, they had a right under the circumstances of the case to recover the same of the defendant."

To this question the court refused to give an answer.

There can be no doubt of the right of a party to require the opinion of the court on any point of law which is pertinent to the issue, nor that the refusal of the court to give such opinion furnishes cause for an exception, but it is equally clear that the court cannot be required to give to the jury an opinion on the truth of testimony in any case.

Had the plaintiffs' counsel been content with the answer of the court to the question of law, he would have been entitled to that answer; but when he involved fact with law and demanded the opinion of the court on the force and truth of the testimony by adding the words "under the circumstances of the case," the question is so qualified as to be essentially changed, and although the court might with propriety have separated the law from the fact and have stated the legal principle, leaving the fact to the jury, there was no obligation to make this discrimination, and consequently no error was committed in refusing to answer the question propounded.

The record also exhibits a part of the charge given to the jury on which the counsel for the plaintiffs have argued as if it composed a part of the bill of exceptions. It is in these words:

"And the said court, prior to the request last mentioned, did declare and give its opinion to said jury that the case wholly turned upon the point whether or not the said defendants

Page 8 U. S. 72

had given due and seasonable notice of the change of the destination of said ship. That it was a question proper for the said jury to decide whether such due and seasonable notice had been given, and that if it was of opinion it had been so given, on considering the whole of the evidence, it ought not to allow the plaintiffs' said charge for said premium."

That a party has a right to except to a misdirection of the jury contained in the charge of the judge who tries the cause is settled in this Court. Church v. Hubbart,6 U. S. 187.

That the opinion which the record ascribes to the judge in this case is incorrect unless some other part of the charge shall have so explained it as to give to the words a meaning different from that which is affixed to them, taken by themselves, is the opinion of this Court.

The judges instructed the jury

"that the case wholly turned upon the point whether or not the defendants had given due and seasonable notice of the change of the destination of the said ship,"

and that if it was of opinion that due and seasonable notice had been given, it ought to find against the plaintiffs on the question of their right to recover the premium advanced by them for the defendants.

Due and seasonable notice must have been given as soon after the destination of the vessel was changed, as it would have been given whether the premium had or had not been advanced by the plaintiffs before they received it, or this direction must have left it to the jury to determine whether notice was or was not due and seasonable, although it might not have been received by the plaintiffs before they had actually advanced for the defendants the sum in contest.

On the first exposition, these words would amount to a clear misdirection of the jury, because if the plaintiffs had paid to the underwriters, at the request of the defendants, the premium of insurance before they received notice countermanding the directions to make such payment, the right given by subsequent circumstances

Page 8 U. S. 73

to the insured to demand its return from the underwriters could not affect the claim of the plaintiffs on the defendants for money fairly advanced by them for the use of the defendants.

If the latter construction be adopted, there was still a misdirection on the part of the court. The judge ought not to have left it expressly to the jury to decide whether notice given immediately after the change of the destination of the vessel could be due and seasonable notice unless it was received before the premium was advanced.

It is, however, not material to the present cause to determine whether this exception does or does not exhibit a misdirection to the jury, since we are unanimously of opinion that for admitting a paper purporting to be the copy of a letter from Edward Carrington to Smith & Ridgeway to go to the jury which was not proved to be a copy, the judgment must be reversed.

Judgment reversed.

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