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U.S. Supreme Court

Brant v. Virginia Coal & Iron Company, 93 U.S. 326 (1876)

Brant v. Virginia Coal and Iron Company

93 U.S. 326


1. Where a testator made a bequest to his wife of all his estate, real and personal, "to have and to hold during her life, and to do with as she sees proper before her death," the wife took a life estate in the property, with only such power as a life tenant can have, and her conveyance of the real property passed no greater interest.

2. For the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel, there must generally be some intended deception in the conduct or declarations of the party to be estopped or such gross negligence on his part as amounts to constructive fraud by which another has been misled to his injury.

3.. Where the estoppel relates to the title of real property, it is essential to the

Page 93 U. S. 327

application of the doctrine that the party claiming to have been influenced by the conduct or declarations of another was himself not only destitute of knowledge of the true state of the title, but also of any convenient and available means of acquiring such knowledge. Where the condition of the title is known to both parties or both have the same means of ascertaining the truth, there is no estoppel.

In April, 1831, Robert Sinclair, of Hampshire County, Va., died leaving a widow and eight surviving children. He was, at the time of his death, possessed of some personal property and the real property in controversy, consisting of one hundred and ten acres. By his last will and testament, he made the following devise:

"I give and bequeath to my beloved wife, Nancy Sinclair, all my estate, both real and personal -- that is to say, all my lands, cattle, horses, sheep, farming utensils, household and kitchen furniture, with everything that I possess, to have and to hold during her life, and to do with as she sees proper before her death."

The will was duly probated in the proper county.

In July, 1839, the widow, for the consideration of $1,100, executed a deed to the Union Potomac Company, a corporation created under the laws of Virginia, of the real property thus devised to her, describing it as the tract or parcel on which she then resided and the same which was conveyed to her "by the last will and testament of her late husband." As security for the payment of the consideration, she took at the time from the company its bond and a mortgage upon the property. The mortgage described the property as the tract of land which had on that day been conveyed by her to the Union Potomac Company.

In 1854, this bond and mortgage were assigned to the complainant and Hector Sinclair, the latter a son of the widow, in consideration of $100 cash, and the yearly payment of the like sum during her life. Previous to this time, Brant and Hector Sinclair had purchased the interest of all the other heirs, except Jane Sinclair, who was at the time, and still is, an idiot or an insane person, and such purchase is recited in the assignment, as is also the previous conveyance of a life interest to the company.

Page 93 U. S. 328

In July, 1857, these parties instituted suit for the foreclosure of the mortgage and sale of the property. The bill described the property as a tract of valuable coal land which the company had purchased of the widow, and prayed for the sale of the estate purchased. Copies of the deed of the widow and of the mortgage of the company were annexed to the bill. In due course of proceedings, a decree was obtained directing a sale, by commissioners appointed for that purpose, of the property, describing it as "the lands in the bill and proceedings mentioned," if certain payments were not made within a designated period. The payments not being made, the commissioners, in December, 1858, sold the mortgaged property to one Patrick Hammill, who thus succeeded to all the rights of the Union Potomac Company.

The defendant corporation, the Virginia Coal and Iron Company, derive their title and interest in the premises by sundry mesne conveyances from Hammill, and in 1867 went into their possession. Since then, it has cut down a large amount of valuable timber and has engaged in mining and extracting coal from the land and disposing of it.

Brant, having acquired the interest of Hector Sinclair, brought the present suit to restrain the company from mining and extracting coal from the land and to compel an accounting for the timber cut and the coal taken and converted to its use.

The court below dismissed the bill, whereupon Brant brought the case here.

Page 93 U. S. 332

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