DERMOTT V. JONES, 69 U. S. 1 (1864)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Dermott v. Jones, 69 U.S. 2 Wall. 1 1 (1864)

Dermott v. Jones

69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 1


1. Performance of a contract to build a house for another on the soil of such person, and that the work shall be executed, finished, and ready for use and occupation and be delivered over so finished and ready to the owner of the soil at a day named, is not excused by the fact that there was a latent defect in the soil in consequence of which the walls sank and cracked, and the house, having become uninhabitable and dangerous, had to be partially taken down and rebuilt on artificial foundations.

2. While a special contract remains executory, the plaintiff must sue upon it. When it has been fully executed according to its terms, and nothing remains to be done but the payment of the price, he may sue either on it or in indebitatus assumpsit, relying, in this last case, upon the common counts; and in either case the contract will determine the rights of the parties.

3. When he has been guilty of fraud or has willfully abandoned the work, leaving it unfinished, he cannot recover in any form of action. Where he has in good faith fulfilled, but not in the manner nor within the time prescribed by the contract, and the other party has sanctioned or accepted the work, he may recover upon the common counts in indebitatus assumpsit.

4. He must produce the contract upon the trial, and it will be applied as far as it can be traced; but if, by fault of the defendant, the cost of the work or material has been increased, insofar the jury will be warranted in departing from the contract prices. In such case, the defendant is entitled to recoup for the damages he may have sustained by the plaintiff's deviations from the contract, not induced by himself, both as to the manner and time of the performance.

Jones, a mason and housebuilder, contracted with Miss Dermott to build a house for her, the soil on which the house was to be built being her own. The house was to be built

Page 69 U. S. 2

according to very detailed plans and specifications, which the "architect" of Miss Dermott had prepared and which were made part of the contract. In the contract, Jones covenanted that he would procure and supply all matters requisite for the execution of the work

"in all its parts and details, and for the complete finish and fitting for use and occupation of all the houses and buildings, and the several apartments of the house and buildings, to be erected pursuant to the plan of the work described and specified in the said schedule, and that the work, and the several parts and parcels thereof, shall be executed, finished, and ready for use and occupation, and be delivered over, so finished and ready,"

at a day fixed. Jones built the house according to the specifications, except insofar as Miss Dermott had compelled him -- according to his account of things -- to deviate from them. Owing, however, to a latent defect in the soil, the foundation sank, the building became badly cracked, uninhabitable, and so dangerous to passersby that Miss Dermott was compelled to take it down, to renew the foundation with artificial "floats," and to rebuild that part of the structure which had given way. This she did at a large expense. As finished on the artificial foundations, the building was perfect.

Jones having sued Miss Dermott in the Federal Court for the District of Columbia, for the price of building, her counsel asked the court to charge that she was entitled to "recoup" the amount which it was necessary for her to expend in order to render the cracked part of the house fit for use and occupation according to the plan and specifications, an instruction which the court refused to give. The court considered, apparently, that even under the covenant made by Jones and above recited, he was not responsible for injury resulting from inherent defects in the ground, the same having been Miss Dermott's own; and judgment went accordingly. Error was taken here. Some other questions were presented in the course of the trial below, and referred to here, as, for example, how far, when a special contract has been made, a plaintiff must sue upon it? how far he may recover in a case where, as was said to have been the fact

Page 69 U. S. 3

here, the plaintiff had abandoned his work, leaving it unfinished? how far "acceptance" -- when such acceptance consisted only in a party's treating as her own a house built on her ground -- waives nonfulfillment, there being no bad faith in the matter? and some questions of a kindred kind. The most important question in the case, however, was the refusal of the court to charge, as requested, in regard to the "recoupment," and the correctness of that refusal rested upon the effect of Jones' covenant to deliver, fit for use and occupation, in connection with the latent defect of soil upon which the foundation was built.

Page 69 U. S. 7

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