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U.S. Supreme Court

Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Brown, 234 U.S. 542 (1914)

Western Union Telegraph Company v. Brown

No. 355

Argued May 5, 1914

Decided June 22, 1914

234 U.S. 542




A recovery in one jurisdiction for a tort committed in another must be based on the ground of an obligation incurred at the place of the tort which is not only the ground, but the measure, of the maximum recovery.

A state cannot legislate so as to affect conduct outside of its jurisdiction and within territory over which the United States has exclusive jurisdiction. A state may not determine the conduct required of a telegraph company in transmitting interstate messages by determining the consequences of not pursuing such conduct in another state. The statute of South Carolina making mental anguish caused by the negligent nondelivery of a telegram a cause of action is, as applied to telegrams the negligent nondelivery of which occurred in the District of Columbia, an unconstitutional attempt to regulate conduct within territory wholly under the jurisdiction of the United

Page 234 U. S. 543

states; such statute is also unconstitutional, as to messages sent from that state to be delivered in another state, as an attempt to regulate interstate commerce.

92 S.C. 554 reversed.

The facts, which involve the constitutionality of a statute of the South Carolina in regard to negligent nondelivery of telegraph messages, are stated in the opinion.

Page 234 U. S. 546

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an action of tort brought by the party to whom a telegraphic message was addressed. The message was delivered to the company in South Carolina, addressed to the plaintiff in Washington, District of Columbia, and read, "Come at once. Your sister died this morning." It was forwarded without delay to Washington, but there, through negligence, as the jury found, was not delivered. The declaration alleges that the failure caused the plaintiff to miss attending her sister's funeral in South Carolina, and subjected the plaintiff to mental anguish, which of itself is made a cause of action by a statute of South Carolina. Civil Code, § 2223. The defendants in error state that the action was brought under this section. There was a trial at which, by the instructions to the jury, a recovery was allowed under the act for the negligence in Washington, irrespective of the law prevailing here. The jury found a verdict for $750, which was sustained by the supreme court of the state. 92 S.C. 354. The plaintiff in error saved its rights under the Constitution of the United States (so plainly that it is not necessary to discuss the matter), and brought the case here.

Whatever variations of opinion and practice there may

Page 234 U. S. 547

have been, it is established as the law of this Court that, when a person recovers in one jurisdiction for a tort committed in another, he does so on the ground of an obligation incurred at the place of the tort that accompanies the person of the defendant elsewhere, and that is not only the ground, but the measure of the maximum recovery. Slater v. Mexican Nat. R. Co., 194 U. S. 120, 194 U. S. 126; Cuba R. Co. v. Crosby, 222 U. S. 473, 222 U. S. 478-480. (A limitation of liability may stand on different grounds. The Titanic, 233 U. S. 718). The injustice of imposing a greater liability than that created by the law governing the conduct of the parties at the time of the act or omission complained of is obvious, and when a state attempts in this manner to affect conduct outside its jurisdiction, or the consequences of such conduct, and to infringe upon the power of the United States, it must fail. The principle would be illustrated by supposing a direct clash between the state and federal statutes; but it is the same whenever the state undertakes to go beyond its jurisdiction into territory where the United States has exclusive control. Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Chiles, 214 U. S. 274; see also Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Commercial Milling Co., 218 U. S. 406, 218 U. S. 416.

What we have said is enough to dispose of the case. But the act also is objectionable in its aspect of an attempt to regulate commerce among the states. That is, as construed, it attempts to determine the conduct required of the telegraph company in transmitting a message from one state to another or to this District by determining the consequences of not pursuing such conduct, and in that way encounters Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Pendleton, 122 U. S. 347, a decision in no way qualified by Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Commercial Milling Co., 218 U. S. 406.

Judgment reversed.

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