While the states have a large latitude in the policy they will
pursue in regard to enforcing prompt settlement of claims against
railroad companies, the rudiments of fair play to the companies as
required by the Fourteenth Amendment must be recognized.
The statute of South Dakota of 1907, c. 215, making railroad
companies liable for double damages in case of failure to pay a
claim or to offer
Page 232 U. S. 166
a sum equal to what the jury finds the claimant entitled to,
to be unconstitutional depriving the companies of
their property without due process of law. St. Louis, Iron Mtn.
& Southern Ry. v. Wynne, 224 U. S. 354
followed; Yazoo & Miss. Valley R. Co. v. Jackson Vinegar
Co., 226 U. S. 217
26 S.D. 378 reversed.
The facts, which involve the validity under the due process
provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment of a judgment for double
damages entered under a railroad claim statute of South Dakota, are
stated in the opinion
Page 232 U. S. 167
MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.
This was a suit against the plaintiff in error for loss of
property destroyed by fire communicated from its locomotive engine.
A statute of South Dakota, after making the railroad company
absolutely responsible in such cases, goes on to make it liable for
double the amount of damage actually sustained unless it pays the
full amount within sixty days from notice. If, within sixty days,
"offer in writing to pay a fixed sum, being the full amount of
the damages sustained, and the owner shall refuse to accept the
same, then in any action thereafter brought for such damages, when
such owner recovers a less sum as damages than the amount so
offered, then such owner shall recover only his damages, and the
railway company shall recover its costs."
S.D.Laws 1907, c. 215. The plaintiff got a verdict for $780. The
railroad had offered $500 -- less, that is, than the amount of the
verdict -- while the plaintiff, on the other hand, demanded more.
In his demand, his declaration, and his testimony, he set the
damage at $838.20. A judgment for double damages was affirmed by
the supreme court of the state. 26 S.D. 378.
The defendant in error presented no argument, probably because
he realized that, under the recent decisions
Page 232 U. S. 168
of this Court, the judgment could not be sustained. No doubt the
states have a large latitude in the policy that they will pursue
and enforce, but the rudiments of fair play required by the
Fourteenth Amendment are wanting when a defendant is required to
guess rightly what a jury will find, or pay double if that body
sees fit to add one cent to the amount that was tendered, although
the tender was obviously futile because of an excessive demand. The
case is covered by St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Ry.
Co. v. Wynne, 224 U. S. 354
is not like those in which a moderate penalty is imposed for
failure to satisfy a demand found to be just. Yazoo &
Mississippi Valley R. Co. v. Jackson Vinegar Co., 226 U.