162 U.S. 650 (1896), 206, Western Union Telegraph Company v. James

Docket Nº:No. 206
Citation:162 U.S. 650, 16 S.Ct. 934, 40 L.Ed. 1105
Party Name:Western Union Telegraph Company v. James
Case Date:May 04, 1896
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 650

162 U.S. 650 (1896)

16 S.Ct. 934, 40 L.Ed. 1105

Western Union Telegraph Company

v.

James

No. 206

United States Supreme Court

May 4, 1896

Argued and submitted April 2, 1896

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT

OF THE STATE OF GEORGIA

Syllabus

The statute of the Georgia of October 22, 1887, requiring every telegraph company with a line of wires wholly or partly within that state to receive dispatches, and, on payment of the usual charges, to transmit and deliver them with due diligence, under a penalty of one hundred dollars, is a valid exercise of the power of the state in relation to messages by telegraph from points outside of and directed to some point within the state.

The case is stated in the opinion.

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PECKHAM, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM delivered the opinion of the court.

This action was brought by the defendant in error against the telegraph company to recover the amount of a penalty which the plaintiff below alleged the company had incurred, and also to recover damages which the plaintiff alleged he had sustained by reason of the failure of the company to promptly deliver a telegraphic dispatch directed to plaintiff at his residence in Blakely, in the State of Georgia.

The statute under which the action was brought was passed by the legislature of the above-named state October 22, 1887, and reads as follows:

An act to prescribe the duty of electric telegraph companies as to receiving and transmitting dispatches, to prescribe penalties for violations thereof, and for other purposes.

SEC. 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, and it is hereby enacted by authority of the same, that from and after the passage of this act, every electric telegraph company with a line of wires wholly or partly in this state and engaged in telegraphing for the public shall, during the usual office hours, receive dispatches, whether from other telegraphic lines or from individuals, and, on payment of the usual charges according to the regulations of such company, shall transmit and deliver the same with impartiality and good faith, and with due diligence, under penalty of one hundred dollars, which penalty may be recovered by suit in a justice or other court having jurisdiction thereof, by either the sender of the dispatch, or the person to whom sent or directed, whichever may first sue, provided that nothing herein shall be construed as impairing or in any was modifying the right of any person to recover damages for any such breach of contract or duty by any telegraph company, and said penalty and said damages may, if the party so elect, be recovered in the same suit.

SEC. 2. Be it further enacted, that such companies shall deliver all dispatches to the persons to whom the same are addressed or to their agents, on payment of any charges [16 S.Ct. 935] due for the same, provided such persons or agents reside within

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one mile of the telegraphic station or within the city or town in which such station is.

SEC. 3. Be it further enacted, that in all cases the liability of said companies for messages in cipher in whole or in part shall be the same as though the same were not in cipher.

SEC. 4. Be it further enacted that all laws or parts of laws in conflict with this act be, and the same are hereby, repealed.

The plaintiff recovered in the trial court the statutory penalty of $100, sued for, and also the sum of $242.60 damages, for the nondelivery of the telegram in question, and upon appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia, that court reversed the judgment as far as it was based upon the actual damages claimed, but affirmed it for the penalty of $100 provided for by the statute above quoted. Under the direction of the supreme court, the plaintiff remitted the claim for damages, and accordingly the judgment for the penalty and for costs was affirmed, and from that judgment the company prosecuted a writ of error from this Court.

The defendant, by its answer, denied that it had been guilty of any violation of the statute in question, and among other defenses it set up by an amended plea that the plaintiff ought not to recover the statutory penalty of $100 sued for, because the message in question was an interstate message, and part of interstate commerce. Upon the trial, the court in its charge to the jury stated:

I charge you that if the defendant telegraph company undertook to transmit to this place a message which had been paid for at the other end of the line, and did fail to deliver the message to James within a reasonable time from the time it was received, the plaintiff is entitled to recover for the failure to deliver $100 as a penalty fixed upon that act by law.

The court also charged as follows:

I charge you that if you find that the message was not delivered within a reasonable time under the attending circumstances, your verdict should be for the plaintiff upon both propositions,

which included the claim for the penalty and for actual damages.

The following facts are stated in the bill of exceptions: the plaintiff, who was a cotton merchant in Blakely, Georgia, on

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the 4th day of November, 1890, sent a message from his residence to Tullis & Co., who were in the same business in Eufaula, in the State of Alabama, offering to sell certain cotton on terms named in the message, and asked to have an answer that night. Tullis & Co. received the message on that day, and at once sent a message in reply, accepting the offer of the plaintiff upon certain conditions. This message was received at Blakely late in the evening of November 4th, but was not delivered until the morning of November 5th. The plaintiff alleged that the delivery was not made with due diligence, and the result of the delay in the delivery of the message was, as he stated, the loss of the sale of the cotton upon the terms mentioned in the message. He therefore brought his action to recover both the penalty and the actual damages which he alleged he had sustained by reason of this failure on the part of the company to deliver the message with due diligence. By the decision of the supreme court, the claim for damages was not sustained, and the judgment given was solely for the penalty.

The only question, therefore, before this Court is whether the statute of the State of Georgia providing for the recovery of such penalty is a valid exercise of the power of the state in relation to messages by telegraph from points outside and directed to some point within the State of Georgia.

The plaintiff in error insists that the act in question is a violation of that portion of Section 8 of Article I of the federal Constitution, which empowers Congress "to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states and with the Indian tribes." The validity of the statute is based...

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