Weightman v. Corporation of Washington,
66 U.S. 39 (1861)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Weightman v. Corporation of Washington, 66 U.S. 1 Black 39 39 (1861)

Weightman v. Corporation of Washington

66 U.S. (1 Black) 39


1. When a municipal corporation is required by its charter to keep a bridge in repair, if the duty was imposed in consideration of privileges granted, and if the means to perform it are within the control of the corporation, such corporation is liable to the public for an unreasonable neglect to comply with the requirement.

2. When all the foregoing conditions concur, a corporation is also liable for injuries to the persons or property of individuals.

3. This liability extends to injuries arising from neglect to perform the duty enjoined or from negligence and unskillfulness in its performance.

This was a writ of error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Columbia. The plaintiff in error

Page 66 U. S. 40

brought case against the Corporation of Washington for bodily injuries suffered by him in consequence of being thrown from the bridge across Rock Creek, at the termination of K Street. On the trial in the circuit court, the plaintiff proved that the charter of the city (sec. 13) provided that

"the said corporation shall have the sole control and management of the bridge, and shall be chargeable with the expenses of keeping the same in repair, and rebuilding it when necessary."

In May, 1854, the plaintiff, a citizen of Washington, was crossing the bridge in an omnibus when the bridge broke down, and he was seriously injured. On part of the defendant, evidence was given that the bridge had been erected by skillful and scientific workmen, in good faith, upon a plan patented by the government and believed to be faultless in principle; that the construction was thought to be strong and solid, both the work and materials being of the best description; that the giving way of the bridge was the result of an accident and of an unknown defect in the plan of it; that when the bridge was completed, in 1850, its strength and capacity were amply tested; that a commissioner was appointed by the corporation of the city to inspect and superintend the bridge, who performed his duties, but did not discover any defect; that the corporation had no notice, either through their officer or otherwise, that the bridge was unsafe, and that in fact there was no indication of unsoundness in it before the time of its fall.

To rebut this evidence of the defendant, the plaintiff proved that the bridge was built by Rider, the patentee of the plan, who warned the officers of the city corporation in vain against building the arch as high as they proposed to make it; that any bridge on that plan, unless it be horizontal, is unsafe, and the insecurity is increased in proportion as the arch is raised; that within a year after the bridge was put up, the approach to it was changed at each end, adding thereby about three tons to its weight; that for several days before it fell, divers persons observed its unsafe condition.

The defendant prayed the court to instruct the jury that upon the whole evidence the plaintiff was not entitled to recover, and the court gave the instructions prayed for. A verdict

Page 66 U. S. 41

and judgment were accordingly given for the defendant, and the plaintiff sued out this writ of error.

Page 66 U. S. 45

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