In re Barre Water Co.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont
Citation20 A. 109,62 Vt. 27
Decision Date28 May 1890


Judgment reversed, and judgments for the exceptants for the smaller sums, etc.

E W. Bisbee and S. C. Shurtleff, for the Water Company.


The Barre Water Company is incorporated by special charter, "for the purpose of furnishing the town of Barre and the inhabitants thereof with water for the extinguishment of fires, and for domestic, sanitary, and other purposes." St. 1886, No. 171. For these purposes it is authorized to take, by purchase or otherwise, the water from Jail Branch and other waters. The company proposes to dam that branch, about two miles above Barre village, and take water therefrom in a 16-inch main, to supply the village. A main of that size is fairly and reasonably necessary for protecting the village in case of a general conflagration, but for domestic and sanitary purposes, only a small part of the water that it will supply will be needed and the company intends to use the surplus water for running small motors for light manufacturing, and to rent water for that purpose, and claims the right to do so. The exceptants own mills on the stream below the company's proposed dam and claim that the company has no right, as against them, to use the surplus water as intended. And this is the question.

The company contends that as at times it may be necessary for fire purposes to use all the water that a 16-inch main will supply, it has a right to take that amount at any time, and when not needed for the purposes specified in its charter, to use it for its own benefit for any other lawful purpose; that the words of its charter are general and that the words, "other purposes," must be construed to mean any lawful purposes other than those specified; and that, by reason of the high pressure in the pipes, the water would be worth much more for running motors than for supplying power in the exceptants' dams.

Statutes are to be construed according to the intention of the Legislature, and the presumption is that the Legislature does not intend to do that which it has no authority to do; and as it has no authority to take private property for private use without the consent of the owner, the presumption is that it did not intend to authorize that to be done in this case, unless the contrary unmistakably appears, supposing, for the present, that the construction contended for would amount to such an attempted authorization.

It is said in Farnsworth v. Goodhue, 48 Vt. 209, in reference to statutes incorporating aqueduct companies, that they are "strongly derogatory to common right, and no case can be brought within them, except such as comes within their terms with imperative necessity." It is our duty to adopt that construction of the statute in question that will, without doing violence to the fair meaning of its language, harmonize it with the Constitution; therefore, the general words under consideration should not be so construed as to carry the grant of the statute beyond the legislative power, and thereby render the act unconstitutional to that extent, unless such a construction is imperatively necessary. Grenada County Supervisors v. Brogden, 112 U.S. 261, 28 L.Ed. 704, 5 S.Ct. 125. But we do not regard such a construction necessary, and think that on well-settled principles of very general application it would be erroneous.

It is a maxim of greater or less universality of application, both in the construction of written instruments and of statutes, that general words may be aptly restricted according to the persons or the subject-matter to which they relate. Lord Hale's maxim of noscitur a sociis is akin to this, from which the rule is deduced, that the meaning of a word may be ascertained by reference to the meaning of words associated with it. And it is laid down by Lord Bacon that the coupling of words together shows that they are to be used in the same sense. In the Archbishop of Canterbury's Case, 2 Co. 46a, it is said that when an act of parliament begins with words that describe persons or things of an inferior degree and concludes with general words, the general words shall not be extended to persons or things of a higher degree. So it is a general rule of construction that when a particular class of persons or things is spoken of, and general words follows, the class first mentioned is to be taken as the most comprehensive, and the general words treated as referring to matters ejusdem generis with such class. Thus, the words, "boat, barge, or other vessel," in an act of parliament, have been held not to include ships, as ships are vessels not ejusdem generis with boats and barges. Per Pollock, C. B., in Lyndon v. Stanbridge, 2 Hurl. & N. 45. An act of parliament imposed certain duties on copper, brass pewter, tin, and "all other metals...

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