Beaulieu v. Great N. Ry. Co.

CourtSupreme Court of Minnesota (US)
Writing for the CourtBROWN
Citation103 Minn. 47,114 N.W. 353
Decision Date27 December 1907
PartiesBEAULIEU v. GREAT NORTHERN RY. CO.

103 Minn. 47
114 N.W. 353

BEAULIEU
v.
GREAT NORTHERN RY.
CO.

Supreme Court of Minnesota.

Dec. 27, 1907.


Appeal from District Court, Red Lake County; William Watts, Judge.

Action by Jennie D. Beaulieu against the Great Northern Railway Company. From an order overruling defendant's demurrer to the complaint, it appeals. Affirmed.

Jaggard, J., dissenting.


Syllabus by the Court

Damages for mental anguish can be recovered in an action for breach of contract only in those exceptional cases where the breach amounts, in substance, to an independent willful tort.

In an action for damages for breach of contract by a railway company to transport a corpse over its line to a particular point, delivering it there to an intersecting carrier to be conveyed to its place of destination, the breach consisting in the negligence of the company's agents and servants in carrying the corpse beyond the connecting point, thus causing a delay of 24 hours in the funeral arrangements, it is held that, in the absence of willful or malicious misconduct on the part of the company or its agents, damages for mental anguish cannot be recovered.

The complaint construed, and held not to state a cause of action within this rule, though it does state a cause of action for nominal damages.


[114 N.W. 353]

M. L. Countryman, for appellant.

W. E. Dodge and Wm. A. Tautges, for respondent.


BROWN, J.

Defendant interposed a general demurrer to the complaint in this action, and appealed from an order overruling the same.

The complaint alleges, in substance, that plaintiff's child, aged three and one-half years, died at Cass Lake, and plaintiff desired that the body should be buried at Ogahmah. The body was accordingly prepared for burial, and delivered to defendant for shipment to that place. The shipment required a transfer of the casket containing the body at Erskine, where the defendant's road connects with the Soo Line, over which the plaintiff and the corpse were to reach Ogahmah. The complaint further alleges that it was the duty of defendant to put the corpse off its train at said Erskine, to the end that it might be transferred to the Soo train, but that, instead of doing so, its servants and agents wrongfully and unlawfully retain possession thereof, and ‘negligently, wrongfully, and unlawfully, and with utter disregard of the rights and feelings of plaintiff,’ carried the corpse beyond that station, and to the city of Crookston, thus delaying the funeral arrangements for 24 hours; that, by reason of this delay, the corpse became badly ‘decayed, mutilated, and damaged.’ As to the nature and character of the injury and damage to plaintiff, it alleges: ‘That said funeral was to take place at White Earth on the 21st day of July, 1906, at 3 o'clock p. m., as stated, and at said time and place the plaintiff had her priest and mourners in attendance, but, by reason of the premises, said funeral and burial could not take place at said time, causing this plaintiff great annoyance and damage. That, by reason of the said neglect, wrongful, and unlawful acts of said defendant, this plaintiff has been greatly damaged, and has been greatly outraged in her feelings, and has suffered great distress of mind and great mental pain and anguish, and has become sick and nervous, and will continue to suffer great mental pain and anguish in the future, all to the plaintiff's damage in the sum of $3,000.’ The complaint charges no willful or intentional misconduct on defendant's part, or on the part of its agents, no claim is made for actual damages, and the allegations thereof, taken as a whole, show only a failure to transport the corpse of plaintiff's child to Erskine, leaving it there for reshipment over the other line to the place of destination, in accordance with its contract. The principal question for consideration, therefore, is whether on the facts stated a recovery may be had for the mental suffering endured by plaintiff in consequence of defendant's neglect.

The question whether mental anguish is a proper element of damage, either in actions in tort or for a breach of contract, has been presented to the courts in numerous cases, and there is much conflict of opinion upon the subject. According to the weight of authority, such damages may be recovered in all actions in tort where the plaintiff has suffered physical injury at the hands of the defendant, whether from malice or mere negligence. (6 Current Law, 631, 8 Am. & Eng. Ency. Law, 658); also in that class of torts where the plaintiff is subjected to some indignity, as in libel, slander, malicious prosecution, or seduction (8 Am. & Eng. Ency. Law, 668; 13 Cyc. 44); and, again, in those willful wrongs where some legal right has been invaded, though no physical injury is inflicted or character or reputation assailed (Lesch v. Railway Co., 97 Minn. 503, 106 N. W. 955;Purcell v. Railway Co., 48 Minn. 134, 50 N. W. 1034,16 L. R. A. 203;Sanderson v. Railway Co., 88 Minn. 162, 92 N. W. 542,60 L. R. A. 403, 97 Am. St. Rep. 509). But such damages are not recoverable in all actions in tort. Broadly stated, their allowance is limited to actions where the plaintiff has received some injury to his person, or some legal right has been invaded of a nature naturally to cause grief and distress of mind. None of the cases, as we read them, go beyond these limits. They are not recoverable in actions for death by the wrongful

[114 N.W. 354]

act of another. Hutchins v. Railway Co., 44 Minn. 5, 46 N. W. 79; Blake v. Railway Co., 18 Q. B. 93; Donaldson v. Railway Co., 18 Iowa, 280, 87 Am. Dec. 391; Munroe v. Pacific Coast, 84 Cal. 515, 24 Pac. 303,18 Am. St. Rep. 248. Nor in actions for libeling the dead. Bradt v. New Nonpareil Co., 108 Iowa, 449, 79 N. W. 122,45 L. R. A. 681, 25 Cyc. 426. Nor in actions for injuries to a minor child. Sperier v. Ott, 116 La. 1087,41 South. 323,7 L. R. A. (N. S.) 518, 114 Am. St. Rep. 587, and cases cited in note; Flemington v. Smithers, 2 Car. & P. 292; Bube v. Birmingham Light Co., 140 Ala. 276,37 South. 285,103 Am. St. Rep. 33;Black v. Carrolton Railway Co., 10 La. Ann. 33, 63 Am. Dec. 586;Hartford Co. v. Hamilton, 60 Md. 340, 45 Am. Rep. 739;Railway Co. v. Barker, 33 Ark. 350, 34 Am. Rep. 44. In State ex rel. v. Railway Co., 24 Md. 84, 87 Am. Dec. 600, an action by a mother for the wrongful death of her son, in which she claimed the right to recover for mental anguish in addition to compensatory damages, the court said: ‘According to appellant's theory, the mother and son are supposed to live together to an indefinite age; the one craving sympathy and support, the other rendering reverence, obedience, and protection. Such pictures of filial piety are estimable moral examples, beautiful to contemplate; but the law has no standard by which to measure their loss.’ Loss of support or loss of services is the gist of actions last referred to and compensatory damages only are recoverable, and it is immaterial whether the act complained of was willful and malicious, or merely the result of negligence. There may be other exceptions to the general rule mentioned, as applied to action ex delicto, but we are not concerned with them at this time.

It is also a rule of general application that mental anguish is not a proper element of damage in actions for breach of contract, though there is a class of wrongs arising out of contractual relations in which this element is permitted to enter. Illustrations of this are found in willful and unlawful injuries to passengers upon railroad trains. There is in such cases a contract by the railroad company to carry safely the passenger to his destination, and an implied legal obligation to protect him within certain limits while the relation of passenger and carrier exists, and the courts declare that willful or malicious violation of that duty constitutes an independent tort, for which recovery may be had for the indignity to which the passenger is subjected. Mykleby v. Railway Co., 39 Minn. 54, 38 N. W. 763; Brown v. Railway Co., 54 Wis. 342, 11 N. W. 356, 911,41 Am. Rep. 41;Walsh v. Railway Co., 42 Wis. 23, 24 Am. Rep. 376;Craker v. Railway Co., 36 Wis. 657, 17 Am. Rep. 504. An exception is also made of actions for breach of promise to marry. But such actions in all essential respects partake of the nature of torts, and are so treated by the courts. Johnson v. Travis, 33 Minn. 331, 22 N. W. 624;Thorn v. Knapp, 42 N. Y. 474, 1 Am. Rep. 561; Smith v. Woodfine, 87 E. C. L. 660; Coll v. Wallace, 24 N. J. Law, 291; 5 Cyc. 1021. The rule that damages of this nature may be recovered in an action for a breach of contract properly to send and deliver a telegram has become the settled law in a number of the states, following the lead of Texas. But a majority of the courts do not concur in that doctrine. 63 Cent. Law J. 340; 1 A. & E. Ann. Cases, 355, note. This court declined to follow it in Francis v. Tel. Co., 58 Minn. 252, 59 N. W. 1078,25 L. R. A. 406, 49 Am. St. Rep. 507, where the rule laid down in the leading English case of Hadley v. Baxendale, 9 Exch. 341, was approved and followed. But it would be unprofitable to prolong this opinion by an extended discussion of the general subject. Summarizing, it may be said that mental anguish is a proper element of damages in all actions sounding in tort, where the plaintiff has received some physical injury, or his legal rights have been so willfully invaded as naturally to cause mental distress. It is an element to be considered in actions for a breach of contract in exceptional cases only; the principal exception being the telegram cases already referred to. And we pass to a consideration of the question whether this case comes within any of the exceptions.

In respect to the wrongful interference with the rights of preservation and burial of the dead, the courts are again somewhat at variance. Though the common law recognizes no property in the bodies of deceased persons (Weld v. Walker, 130 Mass. 422, 39 Am. Rep. 465...

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43 practice notes
  • Cochran v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 4–15–0791.
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • August 3, 2016
    ...or value as a remedy for the tortious violation of the legal right of possession and preservation.” Beaulieu v. Great Northern Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353, 355 (1907). This cause of action has its roots in the early recognition of a quasi-property right in a decedent's body by his n......
  • Wild v. Rarig, No. 44238
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Minnesota (US)
    • January 10, 1975
    ...constitutes or is accompanied by an independent tort. Whittaker v. Collins, 34 Minn. 299, 25 N.W. 632 (1885); Beaulieu v. G.N. Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353 (1907); City of East Page 790 Grand Forks v. Steele, 121 Minn. 296, 141 N.W. 181 (1913); Calamari & Perillo, The Law of Contract......
  • Giampapa v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., No. 00SC468.
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court of Colorado
    • February 24, 2003
    ...a funeral contract similar to that present in Hall. Id. at 232-34, 134 P. at 153-54 (discussing Beaulieu v. Great Northern Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353 (1907)). In Minnesota, at the time of the Beaulieu decision, mental anguish damages were available in contract if the breach of cont......
  • Perry v. Saint Francis Hosp. & Medical Center, No. 93-4231-SAC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of Kansas
    • April 26, 1995
    ...255 Ga. 60, 335 S.E.2d 127 (1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1084, 106 S.Ct. 1464, 89 L.Ed.2d 721 (1986); Beaulieu v. Great Northern Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353, 355 (1907). This "`dubious "property right" to the body, ... cannot be conveyed, can be used only for the one purpose of bur......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
43 cases
  • Cochran v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 4–15–0791.
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • August 3, 2016
    ...or value as a remedy for the tortious violation of the legal right of possession and preservation.” Beaulieu v. Great Northern Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353, 355 (1907). This cause of action has its roots in the early recognition of a quasi-property right in a decedent's body by his n......
  • Wild v. Rarig, No. 44238
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Minnesota (US)
    • January 10, 1975
    ...constitutes or is accompanied by an independent tort. Whittaker v. Collins, 34 Minn. 299, 25 N.W. 632 (1885); Beaulieu v. G.N. Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353 (1907); City of East Page 790 Grand Forks v. Steele, 121 Minn. 296, 141 N.W. 181 (1913); Calamari & Perillo, The Law of Contract......
  • Giampapa v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., No. 00SC468.
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court of Colorado
    • February 24, 2003
    ...a funeral contract similar to that present in Hall. Id. at 232-34, 134 P. at 153-54 (discussing Beaulieu v. Great Northern Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353 (1907)). In Minnesota, at the time of the Beaulieu decision, mental anguish damages were available in contract if the breach of cont......
  • Perry v. Saint Francis Hosp. & Medical Center, No. 93-4231-SAC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of Kansas
    • April 26, 1995
    ...255 Ga. 60, 335 S.E.2d 127 (1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1084, 106 S.Ct. 1464, 89 L.Ed.2d 721 (1986); Beaulieu v. Great Northern Ry. Co., 103 Minn. 47, 114 N.W. 353, 355 (1907). This "`dubious "property right" to the body, ... cannot be conveyed, can be used only for the one purpose of bur......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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