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U.S. Supreme Court

Washington, A. & G. Steam Packet Co. v. Sickles, 65 U.S. 24 How. 333 333 (1860)

Washington, Alexandria & Georgetown Steam Packet Co. v. Sickles

65 U.S. (24 How.) 333




Docket entries in the courts of the District of Columbia, as in Maryland, stand in the place of, and perhaps are, the record, and receive all the consideration that is yielded to the formal record in other states.

The record of a former suit between the parties, in which the declaration consisted of a special count, and the common money counts, and where there was a general verdict on the entire declaration, cannot be given in evidence as an estoppel in a second suit founded on the special count, for the verdict may have been rendered on the common counts.

This rule is not varied by the circumstance that after the verdict was rendered the court directed judgment to be entered for the plaintiffs on the first count in the declaration, being the special count.

The authorities upon the doctrine of estoppel examined.

Page 65 U. S. 334

These two cases related to the same subject matter, and were argued together. The first case was an action brought by Sickles and Cook for their share of the earnings of the steam packet company by the use of their cut-off from March 13, 1846, to October 19, 1846; the second for the same earnings from October 13, 1846, up to December 26, 1855.

The case was before this Court at a preceding term, viz., December term, 1850, and is reported in 51 U. S. 10 How. 419. The suit there was for earnings from 20th August, 1844, to March, 1846.

When the mandate went down, a new trial was had, the judgment of the court below having been reversed by this Court, which took place at October term, 1855. The plaintiffs below, Sickles and Cook, had in the meantime amended their pleadings according to the evidence as given on the first trial by making the declaration consist of a special count and the common money counts. The record entries were as follows, relative to this trial in 1855:

Narr. Non assumpsit and issue.

November 22. July sworn; verdict for plaintiffs; damages $1,695.79, with interest from March 16, 1846; verdict rendered 7th December.

December 14. Judgment for plaintiffs on the first count in the declaration.

December 14, 1855. Appeal bond, writ of error, citation &c.

The writ of error thus sued out was not prosecuted, and the case was docketed and dismissed, under the rule, with costs, on December 19, 1856. Of course this was done at the instance of the counsel for Sickles and Cook.

On the 26th of December, 1855, the suits now in question were brought by Sickles and Cook. The declaration consisted of two special counts and the common money counts, which were afterward abandoned, and the case went to trial on the two special counts. It resulted in a verdict for the plaintiffs for $16,388.25.

Page 65 U. S. 335

On the trial of each of the two last-mentioned cases in the court below, the plaintiffs contended that by the verdict and judgment rendered in the case tried in 1855, between said plaintiffs and defendant, the existence of the contract as set forth in the two first counts of their declarations in said causes, which was identical with that set forth in the declaration in said first-mentioned cause, and the rate of saving ascertained by said experiments, were judicially settled between said plaintiffs and defendant; and that in all subsequent suits between the same parties on said contract, the said defendant was estopped to deny the same, or the rate of saving fixed by the experiment provided for by said contract, and the court below so ruled. The defendant excepted to the ruling of the court and presented objections in various forms by different exceptions.

The reader will perceive that the principal question brought before this Court by the bills of exception was that relating to the doctrine of estoppel, when taken in connection with the order or the circuit court passed on the 14th December, 1855, ordering judgment to be entered on the first count of the declaration.

Page 65 U. S. 340

MR. JUSTICE CAMPBELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The defendants in error, as plaintiffs, sued the plaintiffs in error, in assumpsit in the circuit court, upon a special parol contract, purporting to have been made in 1844, to the effect that they having a patent for Sickles' cut-off, for saving fuel in the working of steam engines, and the defendants being the owners of a certain steamboat, it was agreed between them that the said patentees should attach to the engine of the defendants one of their machines and that the defendants should pay for the use thereof three-fourths of the saving of fuel produced thereby, the payments to be made from time to time, when demanded. That to ascertain the saving of fuel, an experiment should be made in the manner described in the declaration, and that the result should be taken as the rate of saving during the continuance of the contract, which was to be as long as the patent and the steamboat should last. The plaintiffs aver that the experiment had been made, and the rate of saving had been duly ascertained, and that the machine had been used in connection with the engine on the said boat until the commencement of the suit.

In the first count of the declaration, the plaintiffs further stated that they brought, in March, 1846, a suit on this contract in the circuit court for the sum then due, and had obtained a verdict and judgment therefor in the circuit court in 1856, and had thus established conclusively the contract between the parties. These last allegations are not contained in the second count. The defendants pleaded the general issue.

The plaintiffs produced upon the trial, as the only testimony of the contract, the proceedings of the suit mentioned in the declaration, and insisted that these proceedings operated as an estoppel upon the defendants. These proceedings consisted of a writ, a declaration, containing two counts upon the contract, and the common counts, and the plea of the general issue; also a docket entry of a general verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on the entire declaration, and a docket entry of judgment, subsequently rendered on the first count -- a count similar to the counts in the declaration in the present suit. The defendants objected to these docket entries as evidence

Page 65 U. S. 341

of a verdict and judgment, but insisted they were simply memoranda or minutes from which a record of a verdict and judgment were to be made. It appears that in the courts of this District, as in Maryland, the docket stands in the place of, or perhaps, is the record, and receives here all the consideration that is yielded to the formal record in other states. These memorials of their proceedings must be intelligible to the court that preserves them, as their only evidence, and we cannot, therefore, refuse to them faith and credit. Bateler v. State, 8 G. and J. 381; Ruggles v. Alexander, 2 Rawle 232. Besides this testimony of the contract, the plaintiffs proved the quantity of the fuel that had been used in the running of the boat, and relied upon the rate as settled to determine their demand, and insisted that the defendants were estopped to prove there was no such contract or to disprove anyone of the averments in the first count of the declaration in the former suit, or to show that no saving of the wood had been effected, or to show that the so-called experiment was not made pursuant to the contract or was fraudulently made and was not a true and genuine exponent of the capacity of the said cut-off, or to prove that the said verdict was in fact rendered upon all the testimony and allegations that were submitted to the jury, and was in point of fact rendered, as by the docket entry it purports to have been, upon the issues generally, and not upon the first count specially.

The circuit court adopted these conclusions of the plaintiffs and excluded the testimony offered by the defendants to prove those facts.

The authority of the res judicata, with the limitations under which it is admitted, is derived by us from the Roman law and the Canonists. Whether a judgment is to have authority as such in another proceeding, depends, an idem corpus sit; quantitas eadem, idem jus; et an eadem causa petendi et eadem conditio personarum; quae nisi omnia concurrent alia res est -- or, as stated by another jurist, exceptionem rei judicatae, obstare quotiens eadem qaestio inter easdem personas revocatur. The essential conditions under which the exception of the res judicata becomes applicable are the identity of the thing demanded, the identity of

Page 65 U. S. 342

the cause of the demand, and of the parties in the character in which they are litigants. This Court described the rule in Apsden v. Nixon, 4 How. 467, in such cases to be that a judgment or decree set up as a bar by plea, or relied on as evidence by way of estoppel, must have been made by a court of competent jurisdiction upon the same subject matter, between the same parties for the same purpose. The thing demanded in the present suit is a sum of money, being a part of the consideration or price for the use of a valuable machine for which the plaintiffs had a patent, and is the complement of a whole, of which the sum demanded in the first count of the declaration in the former suit is the other part. The special counts in the declaration of each suit are similar, being framed upon this contract, and a decision in the one suit on those counts in favor of the plaintiffs necessarily included and virtually determined its sufficiency to sustain the title of the plaintiffs on it. It was therefore admissible as testimony. This conclusion is supported by adjudged cases and the authority of writers on the law of evidence. Gardener v. Buckbe, 3 Cow. 120; Dutton v. Woodman, 9 Cushing 256; Bonnier des Preuves, sec. 766; 8 Dalloz, Jur.Generale, 256, 257, 258. Buller, in his work on Nisi Prius, says:

"If a verdict be had on the same point, and between the same parties, it may be given in evidence, though the trial were not had for the same lands, for the verdict in such a case is very persuading evidence, because what twelve men have already thought of the fact may be supposed fit to direct the determination of the jury. . . . It is not necessary that the verdict should be in relation to the same land, for the verdict is only set up to prove the point in question, and every matter is evidence that amounts to a proof of the point in question."

B.N.P. 232. The plaintiffs in error contend that, conceding the record to be admissible as evidence, to render the verdict and judgment in the first suit an estoppel it must be shown by the record that the very point which it is sought to estop the party from contesting was distinctly presented by an issue, and expressly found by the jury, and that no estoppel by verdict and judgment can arise in an action on the case or an

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action of assumpsit tried upon the general issue, because in no such action can any precise point be made and presented for trial by a jury, and the cases of Outram v. Morewood, 3 East. 346, Vooght v. Winch, 2 B. & Ald. 662, are cited in support of this proposition. And the conclusion would seem to be proper for the attainment of the end for which authority was allowed to the res judicata as testimony. Experience has disclosed that for the security of rights, and the preservation of the repose of society, a limit must be imposed upon the faculties for litigation. For this purpose, the presumption has been adopted that the thing adjudged by a court of competent jurisdiction, under definite conditions, shall be received in evidence as irrefragable truth.

This presumption is a guarantee of the future efficacy and binding operation of the judgment. It presupposes that all the constituents of the judgment shall be preserved by the court, which renders it in an authentic and unmistakable form. It the courts upon the continent of Europe and in the courts of chancery and admiralty in the United States and Great Britain, where the function of adjudication is performed entire by a tribunal composed of one or more judges, this has been done without much difficulty. The separate functions of the judge and jury in common law courts created a necessity for separating issues of law from issues of fact, and with the increase of commerce and civilization, transactions have become more complicated and numerous, and law and fact have become more closely interwoven, so as to render their separation more embarrassing. The ancient system of pleading, which was conducive to the end of ascertaining the material issue between the parties and the preservation in a permanent form of the evidence of the adjudication, has been condemned as requiring unnecessary precision and subjecting parties to over-technical rules, prolixity, and expense. A system of general pleading has been extensively adopted in this country which rendered the application of the principle contended for by the plaintiffs impracticable unless we were prepared to restrict within narrow bounds the authority of the res judicata. It was consequently decided that it was not necessary

Page 65 U. S. 344

as between parties and privies that the record should show that the question upon which the right of the plaintiff to recover, or the validity of the defense, depended for it to operate conclusively, but only that the same matter in controversy might have been litigated, and that extrinsic evidence would be admitted to prove that the particular question was material, and was in fact contested, and that it was referred to the decision of the jury.

In Young v. Black, 7 Cranch 565, this Court admitted in evidence a record of a former suit between the parties in which judgment was rendered for the defendant, supported by parol proof that the cause of action in the two suits was the same. The Court said:

"The controversy had passed in rem judicatam, and, the identity of the causes of action being once established, the law would not suffer them again to be drawn into question."

The current of American authority runs in the same direction. Wood v. Jackson, 8 Wend. 9; Eastman v. Cooper, 15 Pick. 276; Marsh v. Pico, 4 Rawle 288; Green.Ev., section 531.

In the case before the Court, the verdict was rendered upon two special counts and the general counts in assumpsit, but the verdict in the subsequent stage of the proceedings was applied by the court only to the first count. The record produced by the plaintiffs showed that the first suit was brought apparently upon the same contract as the second, and that the existence and validity of that contract might have been litigated. But the verdict might have been rendered upon the entire declaration, and without special reference to the first count. It was competent to the defendants to show the state of facts that existed at the trial, with a view to ascertain what was the matter decided upon by the verdict of the jury. It may have been that there was no contest in reference to the fairness of the experiment or to its sufficiency to ascertain the premium to be paid for the use of the machine at the first trial, or it may have been that the plaintiffs abandoned their special counts and recovered their verdict upon the general counts. The judgment rendered in that suit, while it remains in force and for the purpose of maintaining its validity, is conclusive of all the

Page 65 U. S. 345

facts properly pleaded by the plaintiffs. But when it is presented as testimony in another suit, the inquiry is competent whether the same issue has been tried and settled by it. Merriam v. Whittemore, 5 Gray 316; Hughes v. Alexander, 5 Duer 488. The defendants in error contend the jury, by their verdict, necessarily found the statements of fact in all the counts of the declaration to be true, and the effect of a verdict and judgment on the whole declaration and a verdict and judgment on the first count is precisely the same, in producing an estoppel, as respects the matters contained in that special count. But this is not true. If the verdict had been rendered on the special count in exclusion of the others, the record itself would have shown that the existence and validity of the contract were in question. There would have been no ground for the inquiry whether any other issue was presented to the jury. But where a number of issues are presented, the finding on any one of which will warrant the verdict and judgment, it is competent to show that the finding was upon one, rather than on another, of these different issues. Henderson v. Kenner, 1 Rich. 474; Sawyer v. Woodbury, 7 Gray 499. Nor do we think that the subsequent application of the verdict to a single count by the court precludes this inquiry. The authority of the courts to make the application, and the circumstances under which it is allowable, was considered by this Court in Matheson v. Grant, 2 How. 263. It is done for the purpose of preventing the consequences of a misjoinder of counts in a declaration, or of the union of insufficient counts with others, so as to allow a valid judgment on the verdict. It had no reference to the use that might be made of the proceedings as testimony in another proceeding. In Maryland, the power to amend the record in this form was conferred by the act of 1809. 3 Maxey, laws, 484. The case is not embraced in the earlier act of 1785 upon this subject. 3 H. and J. 9; ibid., 91.

It is the opinion of the Court that the circuit court erred in holding that the plaintiffs in error were estopped by the proceedings in the former suit for any inquiry in respect to the matters in issue, and actually tried in that cause, and

Page 65 U. S. 346

its judgment is

Reversed and the cause is remanded for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.

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