Barton Kuhn v. Fairmont Coal Company, 50

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtHarlan
Citation215 U.S. 349,30 S.Ct. 140,54 L.Ed. 228
PartiesBARTON W. KUHN, Plff. in Err., v. FAIRMONT COAL COMPANY, Deft. in Err
Docket NumberNo. 50,50
Decision Date03 January 1910

Mr. Homer W. Williams for Kuhn.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 349-351 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Edward A. Brannon, Z. Taylor Vinson, and Vinson & Thompson for the Fairmont Coal Company.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 351-353 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Harlan delivered the opinion of the court:

This case is here on a question propounded under the authority of the judiciary act of March 3d, 1891, relating to the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States. 26 Stat. at L. 828, chap. 517, § 6, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 549. The facts out of which the question arises are substantially as will be now stated.

On the 21st day of November, 1889, the plaintiff, Kuhn, a citizen of Hoio, sold and conveyed to Camden all the coal underlying a certain tract of land in West Virginia of which he, Kuhn, was the owner in fee. The deed contained these clauses: 'The parties of the first part do grant unto the said Johnson N. Camden all the coal and mining privileges necessary and convenient for the removal of the same, in, upon, and under a certain tract or parcel of land situated in the county of Marion, on the waters of the West Fork river, bounded and described as follows, to wit: . . . Together with the right to enter upon and under said land, and to mine, excavate, and remove all of said coal, and to remove upon and under the said lands the coal from and under adjacent, coterminous, and neighboring lands, and also the right to enter upon and under the tract of land hereinbefore described and make all necessary structures, roads, ways excavations, air shafts, drains, drain ways and openings necessary or convenient for the mining andremoval of said coal and the coal from coterminous and neighboring lands to market.'

The present action of trespass on the case was brought January 18th, 1906. The declaration alleged that the coal covered by the above deed passed to the defendant, the Fairmont Coal Company, a West Virginia corporation, on the ___ of January, 1906; that the plaintiff Kuhn was entitled of right to have all his surface and other strata overlying the coal supported in its natural state, either by pillars or blocks of coal or by artificial support; that on the day named the defendant company mined and removed coal from under the land, leaving, however, large blocks or pillars of coal as a means of supporting the overlying surface; that the coal company, disregarding the plaintiff's rights, did knowingly, wilfully, and negligently, without making any compensation therefor, or for the damages arising therefrom, mine and remove all of said blocks and pillars of coal so left, by reason whereof and because of the failure to provide any proper or sufficient artificial or other support for the overlying surface, the plaintiff's surface land, or a large portion thereof, was caused to fall; and that it was cracked, broken, and rent, causing large holes and fissures to appear upon the surface, and destroying the water and water courses.

The contract under which the title to the coal originally passed was executed in West Virginia, and the plaintiff's cause of action arose in that state.

A demurrer to the declaration was sustained by the circuit court, an elaborate opinion being delivered by Judge Dayton. 152 Fed. 1013. The case was then taken upon writ of error to the circuit court of appeals.

It appears from the statement of the case made by the circuit court of appeals, that, in the year 1902, after Kuhn's deed to Camden, one Griffin brought, in a court of West Virginia, an action, similar in all respects to the present one, against the Fairmont Coal Company, the successor of Camden. His rights arose from a deed almost identical with that executed by Kuhn to Camden. That case was ruled in favor of the coal company, and subsequently was taken to the supreme court of West Virginia, which announced its opinion therein in November, 1905. A petition for rehearing having been filed, the judgment was stayed. But the petition was overruled March 27th, 1906, on which day, after Kuhn's suit was brought, the decision previously announced in the Griffin Case became final under the rules of the supreme court of the state. Griffin v. Fairmont Coal Co. 59 W. Va. 480, 2 L.R.A. (N.S.) 1115, 53 S. E. 24.

The contention by the coal company in the court below was that, as the decision in the Griffin Case covered substantially the same question as the one here involved, it was the duty of the Federal court to accept that decision as controlling the rights of the present parties, whatever might be its own opinion as to the law applicable to this case. The contention of Kuhn was that the Federal court was under a duty to determine the rights of the present parties upon its own independent judgment, giving to the decision in the state court only such weight as should be accorded to it according to the established principles in the law of contracts and of sound reasoning; also, that the Federal court was not bound by a decision of the state court in an action of trespass on the case for a tort not involving the title to land.

Such being the issue, the circuit court of appeals, proceeding under the judiciary act of March 3d, 1891, chap. 517, have sent up the following question to be answered:

'Is this court bound by the decision of the supreme court in the case of Griffin v. Fairmont Coal Co., that being an action by the plaintiff against the defendant for damages for a tort, and this being an action for damages for a tort based on facts and circumstances almost identical, the language of the deeds with reference to the granting clause being in fact identical, that case having been decided after the contract upon which defendant relies was executed, after the injury complained of was sustained, and after this action was instituted?'

There is no room for doubt as to the scope of the decision in the Griffin Case. The syllabus—which, in West Virginia, is the law of the case, whatever may be the reasoning employed in the opinion of the court—is as follows: '1. Deeds conveying coal with rights of removal should be construed in the same way as other written instruments, and the intention of the parties, as manifest by the language used in the deed itself, should govern. 2. The vendor of land may sell and convey his coal, and grant to the vendee the right to enter upon and under said land, and to mine, excavate, and remove all of the coal purchased and paid for by him, and, if the removal of the coal necessarily causes the surface to subside or break, the grantor cannot be heard to complain thereof. 3. Where a deed conveys the coal under a tract of land, together with the right to enter upon and under said land, and to mine, excavate, and remove all of it, there is no implied reservation in such an instrument that the grantee must leave enough coal to support the surface in its original position. 4. It is the duty of the court to construe contracts as they are made by the parties thereto, and to give full force and effect to the language used, when it is clear, plain, simple, and unambiguous. 5. It is only where the language of a contract is ambiguous and uncertain, and susceptible of more than one construction, that a court may, under the well-established rules of construction, interfere to reach a proper construction and make certain that which in itself is uncertain.'

Nor can it be doubted that the point decided in the Griffin Case had not been previously adjudged by the supreme court of that state. Counsel for the coal company expressly state that the question here involved was never before the legislature or courts of West Virginia until the deed involved in the Griffin Case came before the supreme court of that state for construction; that 'until then there was no law and no local custom upon the subject in force in West Virginia;' and that 'only after the holding of the state court in the Griffin Case could it be said that the narrow question therein decided had become a rule of property in that state.'

In this view of the case, was not the Federal court bound to determine the dispute between the parties according to its own independent judgment as to what rights were acquired by them under the contract relating to the coal? If the Federal court was of opinion that the coal company was under a legal obligation, while taking out the coal in question, to use such precautions and to proceed in such way as not to destroy or materially injure the surface land, was it bound to adjudge the contrary simply because, in a single case, to which Kuhn was not a party, and which was determined after the right of the present parties had accrued and become fixed under their contract, and after the injury complained of had occurred, the state court took a different view of the law? If, when the jurisdiction of the Federal court was invoked, Kuhn, the citizen of Ohio, had, in its judgment, a valid cause of action against the coal company for the injury of which he complained, was that court obliged to subordinate its view of the law to that expressed by the state court?

In cases too numerous to be here cited, the general subject suggested by these questions has been considered by this court. It will be both unnecessary and impracticable to enter upon an extended review of those cases. They are familiar to the profession. But in the course of this opinion we will refer to a few of them.

The question as to the binding force of state decisions received very full consideration in Burgess v. Seligman, 107 U. S. 20, 33, 27 L. ed. 359, 365, 2 Sup. Ct. Rep. 10. After judgment in that case by the United States circuit court, the supreme court of the state rendered two judgments, each of which was adverse to the grounds upon which the circuit court had proceeded, and...

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