Fairmount Glass Works v. Cub Fork Coal Co

Decision Date09 January 1933
Docket NumberNo. 314,314
Citation77 L.Ed. 439,287 U.S. 474,53 S.Ct. 252
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Paul Y. Davis and Henry H. Hornbrook, both of Indianapolis, Ind., for petitioner.

Mr. Connor Hall, of Huntington, W. Va., for respondent.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 475-476 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Cub Fork Coal Company and Paragon Colliery Company brought this action in the federal court for southern Indiana to recover from Fairmount Glass Works $32,417, with interest, as damages for breach of a contract to purchase 17,500 tons of coal, at $6.50 per ton f.o.b. mines, deliverable in twelve monthly installments beginning June, 1920. Jurisdiction of the federal court was invoked on the ground of diversity of citizenship. The Glass Works pleaded in bar several defenses; and it also set up a counterclaim in the sum of $2,000 as damages for failure to make delivery as provided by the contract. Three trials before a jury were had. At each of the first two the verdict was for the defendant; and each time the judgment entered thereon was reversed by the Circuit Court of Appeals with a general direction for a new trial, (19 F.(2d) 273; 33 F.(2d) 420). On the third trial the plaintiffs recovered a verdict for $1; and, after further proceedings, judgment was entered thereon, with costs.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals 'for the reasons set forth in the assignment of errors.' The errors assigned were the failure to give eleven requested instructions. Nine instructions sought related solely to the question of liability. None of the instructions requested and refused related to the measure of damages. But the first asked for a directed verdict for $42,773.50, and the second asked that if a verdict were rendered for the plaintiffs the damages be set at $42,773.50. The charge given was not otherwise excepted to. It had appeared at the trial that after receiving in installments about 6,330 tons of coal, the defendant refused, on December 4, 1920, to accept further deliveries; and that there was a continuing serious decline in the market price of coal from that date to the end of the twelve months fixed by the contract for delivery. The defendant had insisted upon the several defenses pleaded in bar as well as upon the counterclaim. After the verdict the defendant was allowed to amend the counterclaim, so as to allege that the market price of coal was $11 a ton at the time plaintiffs failed to make the deliveries therein referred to, and that the defendant's damages from such failure were $10,000. The record recites that a motion for a new trial was made by the plaintiffs and overruled, and that the overruling was excepted to; but the grounds of the motion, and of the refusal to grant it, are not stated. The errors assigned do not include any reference to the motion for a new trial; or to the exception which was taken to the allowance of the amendment of the counterclaim after verdict.

The Circuit Court of Appeals deemed it unnecessary to consider the nine instructions relating to liability, since the verdict for the plaintiffs 'upon the issues which determined liability was amply sustained by the evidence.' Nor did it discuss the two instructions which alone referred to the amount of damages recoverable. But it made an order substantially as follows: If within thirty days the parties shall stipulate that the judgment be modified by substituting for $1 the sum of $18,500 (or other agreed sum), with interest at the rate of 5 per cent. from December 4, 1920, and costs, the judgment as so modified shall be affirmed; otherwise the judgment shall be reversed and a new trial be had 'limited only to an ascertainment * * * of appellants' (plaintiffs') recoverable damages and the amount of appellee's counterclaim if upon a new trial it appears that appellee is entitled to any recovery or set-off on its counterclaim.' 59 F.(2d) 539, 540. As the parties did not stipulate for the modification suggested by the Court of Appeals, it ordered that the judgment be reversed with costs, and that the cause be remanded to the District Court with direction to grant a new trial limited as stated. The defendant petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari on the ground that the Circuit Court of Appeals, in violation of the Seventh Amendment of the Federal Constitution, re-examined the verdict of the jury otherwise than according to the rules of the common law, and reversed the judgment solely for alleged error of fact in the verdict and for the alleged error of the trial court in overruling a motion for a new trial. Certiorari was granted, 287 U.S. 585, 53 S.Ct. 24, 77 L.Ed. .

The reasons assigned by the Circuit Court of Appeals for its action were substantially these: It appears that a large sum is recoverable as damages; that the minimum recoverable may be determined with substantial accuracy by computation, for the defendant 'breached its contract without justification on December 4, 1920,' and 'the market price of coal is shown for each day of the month, and the average price per month is also disclosed, so that the actual amount of damages is quite definitely ascertainable' despite 'a slight discrepancy in the statements of witnesses.' The amount shipped and the amount received are also quite definitely ascertainable, despite a discrepancy 'due apparently to the fact that the railroads confiscated a small amount of the coal on several occa- sions.' Computing plaintiffs' damages 'upon the basis most favorable to' the defendant, and the defendant's damages on the counterclaim also on the basis most favorable to it, plaintiffs appear clearly to be entitled to $18,250, with interest at the rate of 5 per cent. from December 4, 1920, and costs. As the jury fixed the damages at $1, the verdict should have been set aside and a new trial granted. Since in view of Slocum v. New York Life Insurance Co., 228 U.S. 364, 33 S.Ct. 523, 57 L.Ed. 879, Ann. Cas. 1914D, 1029, the court is 'not at liberty to direct judgment for such amount as we believe would fairly represent' plaintiffs' damages, the parties should be given the opportunity of disposing of the case without further litigation by entering into an agreement as to the damages. If the parties do not so agree, a new trial should be granted; limited to the ascertainment of damages, as in Gasoline Products Co. v. Champlin, 283 U.S. 494, 51 S.Ct. 513, 75 L.Ed. 1188.

If the refusal to grant the motion for a new trial was deemed by the Circuit Court of Appeals plain reversible error, it was at liberty under its rules to notice the error although not assigned;1 and the omission from the record of the grounds of the motion would be no obstacle to a review, since the motion was obviously directed to the failure to award substantial damages.2 But we are of opinion that the action of the District Court was not reversible error.

First. The rule that this Court will not review the action of a federal trial court in granting or denying a motion for a new trial for error of fact has been settled by a long and unbroken line of decisions;3 and has been frequently applied where the ground of the motion was that the damages awarded by the jury were excessive or were inadequate.4 The rule precludes likewise a review of such action by a Circuit Court of Appeals.5 Its early formulation by this Court was influenced by the mandate of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which provided in section 22 that there should be 'no reversal in either (circuit or Supreme) court on such writ of error * * * for any error in fact.' 6 Sometimes the rule has been rested on that part of the Seventh Amendment which provides that 'no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States than according to the rules of the common law.' 7 More frequently the reason given for the denial of review is that the granting or refusing of a motion for a new trial is a matter within the discretion of the trial court.8

It has been suggested that a review must be denied because of the historical limitation of the writ of error to matters within the record, of which the motion for a new trial was not a part.9 Compare Judge Learned Hand in Miller v. Maryland Casualty Co. (C.C.A.) 40 F.(2d) 463. But the denial of review can no longer rest upon this ground, since the record before the appellate court has been enlarged to include in the bill of exceptions a motion for a new trial, made either before or after judgment. Compare Harrison v. United States (C.C.A.) 7 F.(2d) 259, 262. Under certain circumstances the appellate court may inquire into the action of the trial court on a motion for a new trial. Thus, its denial may be reviewed if the trial court erroneously excluded from consideration matters which were appropriate to a decision on the motion, Mattox v. United States, 146 U.S. 140, 13 S.Ct. 50, 36 L.Ed. 917; Ogden v. United States (C.C.A.) 112 F. 523; or if it acted on the mistaken view that there was no jurisdiction to grant it, or that there was no authority to grant it on the ground advanced, Felton v. Spiro (C.C.A.) 78 F. 576, 581; Dwyer v. United States (C.C.A.) 170 F. 160, 165; Paine v. St. Paul Union Stockyards Co. (C.C.A.) 35 F.(2d) 624, 626—628. It becomes necessary, therefore, to determine whether the circumstances of the case at bar justify an enquiry into the trial court's refusal to set aside the verdict.

Second. It is urged that the motion for a new trial presented an issue of law. The argument is that on the motion or on the court's own initiative the verdict should have been set aside as inconsistent on its face, since if the plaintiffs were entitled to recover at all they were entitled to substantial, not merely nominal, damages. The case, it is contended, is comparable to one in which the award of damages exceeded a statutory limit, see Southern Ry., Carolina Division v....

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