Jessie Thompson v. Charles Thompson

Decision Date12 December 1910
Docket NumberNo. 17,17
Citation54 L.Ed. 1180,21 Ann. Cas. 921,31 S.Ct. 111,218 U.S. 611
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. William M. Lewin for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 611-614 intentionally omitted] Messrs. A. E. L. Leckie, Creed M. Fulton, Joseph W. Cox, and John A. Kratz, Jr., for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice Day delivered the opinion of the court:

This case presents a single question, which is involved in the construction of the statutes governing the District of Columbia. That question is, Under that statute may a wife bring an action to recover damages for an assault and battery upon her person by the husband?

The declaration of the plaintiff is in the ordinary form, and in seven counts charges divers assaults upon her person by her husband, the defendant, for which the wife seeks to recover damages in the sum of $70,000. An issue of law being made by demurrer to the defendant's pleas, the supreme court of the District of Columbia held that such action would not lie under the statute. Upon writ of error to the court of appeals of the District of Columbia, the judgment of the supreme court was affirmed. 31 App. D. C. 557, ——L.R.A.(N.S.) ——, 14 A. & E. Ann. Cas. 879.

At the common law the husband and wife were regarded as one, the legal existence of the wife during coverture being merged in that of the husband; and, generally speaking, the wife was incapable of making contracts, of ac- quiring property or disposing of the same without her husband's consent. They could not enter into contracts with each other, nor were they liable for torts committed by one against the other. In pursuance of a more liberal policy in favor of the wife, statutes have been passed in many of the states looking to the relief of a married woman from the disabilities imposed upon her as a feme covert by the common law. Under these laws she has been empowered to control and dispose of her own property free from the constraint of the husband, in many instances to carry on trade and business, and to deal with third persons as though she were a single woman. The wife has further been enabled by the passage of such statutes to sue for trespass upon her rights in property, and to protect the security of her person against the wrongs and assaults of other.

It is unnecessary to review these statutes in detail. Their obvious purpose is, in some respects, to treat the wife as a feme sole, and to a large extent to alter the common-law theory of the unity of husband and wife. These statutes, passed in pursuance of the general policy of emancipation of the wife from the husband's control, differ in terms, and are to be construed with a view to effectuate the legislative purpose which led to their enactment.

It is insisted that the Code of the District of Columbia has gone so far in the direction of modifying the common-law relation of husband and wife as to give to her an action against him for torts committed by him upon her person or property. The answer to this contention depends upon a construction of § 1155 of the District of Columbia Code. [31 Stat. at L. 1374, chap. 854.] That section provides:

'Sec. 1155. Power of wife to trade and to sue and be sued. Married women shall have power to engage in any business, and to contract, whether engaged in business or not, and to sue separately upon their contracts, and also to sue separately for the recovery, security, or protection of their property, and for torts committed against them, as fully and freely as if they were unmarried; contracts may also be made with them, and they may also be sued separately upon their contracts, whether made before or during marriage, and for wrongs independent of contract, committed by them before or during their marriage, as fully as if they were unmarried; and upon judgments recovered against them execution may be issued as if they were unmarried; nor shall any husband be liable upon any contract made by his wife in her own name and upon her own responsibility, nor for any tort committed separately by her out of his presence, without his participation or sanction: Provided, That no married woman shall have power to make any contract as surety or guarantor, or as accommodation drawer, acceptor, maker, or indorser.'

In construing a statute the courts are to have in mind the old law and the change intended to be effected by the passage of the new. Reading this section, it is apparent that its purposes, among others, were to enable a married woman to engage in business and to make contracts free from the intervention or control of the husband, and to maintain actions separately for the recovery, security, and protection of her property. At the common law, with certain exceptions, not necessary to notice in this connection, the wife could not maintain an action at law except she be joined by her husband. Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, 589, 16 L. ed. 226, 228. For injuries suffered by the wife in her person or property, such as would give rise to a cause of action in favor of a feme sole, a suit could be instituted only in the joint name of herself and husband. 1 Cooley, Torts, 3d ed. 472, and cases cited in the note.

By this District of Columbia statute the common law was changed, and, in view of the additional rights confered upon married women in § 1155 and other sections of the Code, she is given the right to sue separately for redress of wrongs concerning the same. That this was the purpose of the statute, when attention is given to the very question under consideration, is apparent from the consideration of its terms. Married women are authorized to sue separately for 'the recovery, security, or protection of their property, and for torts committed against them as fully and freely as if they were unmarried.' That is, the limitation upon her right of action imposed in the requirement of the common law that the husband should join her was removed by the statute, and she was permitted to recover separately for such torts, as freely as if she were still unmarried. The statute was not intended to give a right of action as against the husband, but to allow the wife, in her own name, to maintain actions of tort which, at common law, must be brought in the joint names of herself and husband.

This construction we think is obvious from a reading of the statute in the light of the purpose sought to be accomplished. It gives a reasonable effect to the terms used, and accomplishes, as we believe, the legislative intent, which is the primary object of all construction of statutes.

It is suggested that the liberal construction insisted for in behalf of the plaintiff in error in this case might well be given, in view of the legislative intent to provide remedies for grievous wrongs to the wife; and an instance is suggested in the wrong to a wife rendered unable to follow the avocation of a seamstress by a cruel assault which might destroy the use of hand or arm; and the justice is suggested of giving a remedy to an artist who might be maimed and suffer great pecuniary damages as the result of injuries inflicted by a brutal husband.

Apart from the consideration that the perpetration of such atrocious wrongs affords adequate grounds for relief under the statutes of divorce and alimony, this construction would, at the same time, open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other and bring into public notice complaints for assault, slander, and libel, and alleged injuries to property of the one or the other, by husband against wife, or wife against husband. Whether the exercise of such jurisdiction would be promotive of the public welfare and domestic harmony is at least a debatable question. The possible evils of such legislation might well make the lawmaking power hesitate to enact it. But these and kindred considerations are addressed to the legislative, not the judicial, branch of the government. In cases like the present, interpretation of the law is the only function of the courts.

An examination of this class of legislation will show that it has gone much further in the direction of giving rights to the wife in the management and control of her separate property than it has in giving rights of action directly against the husband. In no act called to our attention has the right of the wife been carried to the extent of opening the courts to complaints of the character of the one here involved.

It must be presumed that the legislators who enacted this statute were familiar with the long-established policy of the common law, and were not unmindful of the radical changes in the policy of centuries which such legislation as is here suggested would bring about. Conceding it to be within the power of the legislature to make this alteration in the law, if it saw fit to do so,...

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