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U.S. Supreme Court

Washington Gas Light Co. v. Lansden, 172 U.S. 534 (1899)

Washington Gas Light Company v. Lansden

No. 43

Argued October 17-18, 1898

Decided January 16, 1399

172 U.S. 534


In order to hold a corporation liable for the torts of any of its agents, the act in question must be performed in the course and within the scope of the agent's employment in the business of the principal.

A corporation can, however, also be held responsible for acts of its agent, not strictly within its corporate powers, which were assumed to be performed for it by an agent competent to employ the corporate powers actually exercised, but in such case there must be evidence of some facts from which the authority of the agent to act upon or in relation to the subject matter involved may be fairly and legitimately inferred by the court or jury, though this evidence need not necessarily be in writing.

When the only conclusion to be drawn from such evidence is a want of authority, the question is one for the court to decide without submitting it to the jury.

In this case, the court should have directed a verdict for the corporation on the ground that there was an entire lack of evidence on which to base a verdict against it.

The judgment in this case against Mr. Bailey also should be reversed, as it is not supported by the evidence.

In an action in tort brought in the District of Columbia, the common law rule prevails that those defendants who are sued together and found guilty are liable for the whole injury to the plaintiff, without examining the question of the different degrees of culpability, and as evidence of the wealth of the corporation defendant was admitted in evidence against all the defendants as a ground for punitive damages, and as the individual defendants were joined by the voluntary act of the plaintiff, the Court is of opinion that it was not admissible as against them.

Evidence of the wealth of one of the defendants in an action of tort is inadmissible as a foundation for computing or determining the amount of such damages against all.

In a case of this character, where the line between compensatory and punitive damages is vague, it is impossible to say that, by merely charging the jury that punitive damages cannot be recovered, the effect of incompetent evidence received as to the wealth of one of the defendants was thereby removed, or that the verdict of the jury can be held to have been based solely upon the competent evidence in the case.

Where a judgment is based upon a cause of action of such a nature that it might work injustice to one party defendant if it were to remain intact as against him, while reversed for error as to the other defendants, the power exists in the court, founded upon such fact of possible injustice, to reverse the judgment in toto and grant a new trial in regard to all the defendants.

Page 172 U. S. 535

The case is stated in the opinion.

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