LeRoy Fibre Co. v. Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Ry.
232 U.S. 340 (1914)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

LeRoy Fibre Co. v. Chicago, M. & St.P. Ry., 232 U.S. 340 (1914)

LeRoy Fibre Company v. Chicago

Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway

No. 175

Submitted January 19, 1914

Decided February 24, 1914

232 U.S. 340

Syllabus

One's lawful uses of his own property cannot be subjected to the servitude of the wrongful use by another of the latter's property.

In an action at law by the owner of a natural product of the soil, such as flax straw, which he lawfully stored on his own premises and which was destroyed by fire caused by the negligent operation of a locomotive engine, to recover the value thereof from the railroad company operating the engine, it is not a question for the jury whether the owner was also negligent without other evidence than that the railroad company preceded the owner in the establishment of its business, that the property was inflammable in character, and that it was stored near the railroad right of way and track.

It is not a question for the jury whether an owner who lawfully stores his property on his own premises adjacent to a railroad right of way and track is held to the exercise of reasonable care to protect it from fire set by the negligence of the railroad company and not resulting from unavoidable accident or the reasonably careful conduct of its business.

As respects liability for the destruction by fire of property lawfully held on private premises adjacent to a railroad right of way and track, the owner discharges his full legal duty for its protection if he exercises that care which a reasonably prudent man would exercise under like circumstances to protect it from the dangers incident to the operation of the railroad conducted with reasonable care.

The following questions are certified:

"1. In an action at law by the owner of a natural product of the soil, such as flax straw, which he lawfully stored on his own premises, and which was destroyed by fire caused by the negligent operation of a locomotive engine, to recover the value thereof from the railroad company operating the engine, is it a question for the jury whether the owner was also negligent, without other evidence than

Page 232 U. S. 341

that the railroad company preceded the owner in the establishment of its business, that the property was inflammable in character, and that it was stored near the railroad right of way and track?"

"2. Is it a question for the jury whether an owner who lawfully stores his property on his own premises adjacent to a railroad right of way and track is held to the exercise of reasonable care to protect it from fire set by the negligence of the railroad company, and not resulting from unavoidable accident or the reasonably careful conduct of its business?"

"3. As respects liability for the destruction by fire of property lawfully held on private premises adjacent to a railroad right of way and track, does the owner discharge his full legal duty for its protection if he exercises that care which a reasonably prudent man would exercise under like circumstances to protect it from the dangers incident to the operation of the railroad, conducted with reasonable care?"

The LeRoy Fibre Company, plaintiff in error (we will refer to it as plaintiff), brought an action against defendant in error (referred to herein as defendant) in a state court of Minnesota to recover the value of certain flax straw alleged to have been negligently burned and destroyed by defendant. The cause was removed to the circuit court for the District of Minnesota, where it was tried. One of the grounds of negligence set forth was that a locomotive engine of defendant, while passing the premises of plaintiff, was so negligently managed and operated by defendant's employees that it emitted and threw sparks and coals of unusual size upon the stacks of flax straw, and thereby set fire to and destroyed them.

The evidence at the trial showed the following without dispute:

"Some years after defendant had constructed and commenced operating its line of railroad through Grand Meadow, Minnesota, the plaintiff established at

Page 232 U. S. 342

that village a factory for the manufacture of tow from flax straw. The plaintiff had, adjacent to its factory premises, a tract of ground abutting upon the railroad right of way and approximately 250 by 400 feet in dimension, upon which it stored flax straw it purchased for use in its manufacturing business. There were about 230 stacks, arranged in two rows, parallel with the right of way. Each stack contained from three to three and a half tons of straw. The distance from the center of the railroad track to the fence along the line of the right of way was 50 feet, from the fence to the nearest row of stacks, 20 or 25 feet, and from the fence to the second row of stacks, about 35 feet. A wagon road ran between the fence and the first row. On April 2, 1907, during a high wind, a fire started upon one of the stacks in the second row, and as a result all were consumed. The fire did not reach the stack through the intervening growth or refuse, but first appeared on the side of the stack above the ground. The flax straw was inflammable in character. It was easily ignited and easily burned."

"There was substantial evidence at the trial tending to show that the fire was started by a locomotive engine of defendant which had just passed, and that, through the negligent operation of defendant's employees in charge, it emitted large quantities of sparks and live cinders, which were carried to the straw stack by a high wind then prevailing. It was contended at the trial by defendant that plaintiff itself was negligent, and that its negligence contributed to the destruction of its property. There was no evidence that plaintiff was negligent save that it had placed its property of an inflammable character upon its own premises so near the railroad tracks -- that is to say, the first row of stacks, 70 or 75 feet, and the second row, in which the fire started, about 85 feet from the center of the railroad track. In other words, the character of the property and its proximity

Page 232 U. S. 343

to an operated railroad, for which plaintiff was responsible, was the sole evidence of plaintiff's contributory negligence."

"The trial court charged the jury that, though the destruction of the straw was caused by defendant's negligence, yet if the plaintiff, in placing and maintaining two rows of stacks of flax straw within a hundred feet of the center line of the railroad, failed to exercise that ordinary care to avoid danger of firing its straw from sparks from engines passing on the railroad that a person of ordinary prudence would have exercised under like circumstances, and that the failure contributed to cause the accident, the plaintiff could not recover. The trial court also submitted two questions to the jury, as follows:"

"1. Did the Fibre Company, in placing and keeping two rows of flax straw within 100 feet of the center line of the railroad, fail to use the care to avoid danger to its straw from sparks of fire from engines operating on that railroad that a person of ordinary prudence would have used under like circumstances? 2. Did the engineer McDonald fail to use that degree of care to prevent sparks from his engine from firing the stacks as he passed them, on April 2, 1907, that a person of ordinary prudence would have used under like circumstances?"

"The jury answered both questions in the affirmative, and found a general verdict for the defendant. Judgment was accordingly entered for defendant. The plaintiff duly saved exceptions to the charge of the court regarding its contributory negligence and to the submission of the first question to the jury, and has assigned the action of the court as error. "

Page 232 U. S. 348

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Primary Holding

Property owners cannot be held accountable for the negligence of other parties as long as they manage their premises in a reasonably prudent manner.

Facts

An improperly operated engine on a train run by Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway caused straw to ignite on the property of LeRoy, a flax maker. LeRoy had stacked 700 tons of straw on its property near the right of way that Chicago used for its engines. Correctly applying the jury instructions, the jury found that LeRoy was contributorily negligent because it had stacked the straw within 100 feet of the tracks.

Opinions

Majority

  • Joseph McKenna (Author)
  • James Clark McReynolds
  • Mahlon Pitney
  • William Rufus Day
  • Charles Evans Hughes
  • Edward Douglass White
  • Willis Van Devanter
  • Joseph Rucker Lamar

The legitimate use of a property right, such as a right of way, may give rise to inconveniences and risks to others. However, there is no right to engage in wrongful operation on one's property, nor should there be special considerations when a railroad is the defendant.

Concurrence

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Author)

The majority ruled correctly in this instance, but contributory negligence may be found if the flax had been stacked so closely to the railroad that it foreseeably could be ignited by a passing, properly controlled train. Assuming that the railroad had not wrongly operated the train, there could be no liability for a fire unless the stacks were at a reasonably safe distance from the tracks.

Case Commentary

This cases illustrates the potential tension between the rights that property law offers to owners and the negligence doctrines that protect the safety of sometimes unforeseen victims.

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