Robbins v. Chicago City

Citation4 Wall. 657,71 U.S. 657,18 L.Ed. 427
Decision Date01 December 1866
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

This was an action on the case brought by the city of Chicago against Robbins. The declaration alleged that the city had by law exclusive control over the public streets and was bound to protect them from encroachment and injury. That Robbins owned a lot on the corner of Wells and Water Streets, and wrongfully 'dug, opened, and made' an area in the sidewalk adjoining, and left it so unguarded that one Woodbury fell into it and was severely injured; that Woodbury had recovered, for his injuries, $15,000 damages against the city, which sum the city had paid, and which, though the city had been primarily liable for it, Robbins was bound to refund. Plea, the general issue.

The case was this:

Robbins owning an unimproved lot, at the southeast corner of Wells and Water Streets, in Chicago, contracted, in February, 1856, with one Button to build a storehouse on it; Button's principal work being the masonry, and there being seven different contractors on the building in all, on different parts of it. The whole was under charge of an architect appointed by Robbins, the duty of which person was to see that the work was done according to contract.

The city had, in 1855, ordered the grade of Wells Street to be raised about seven feet and the carriage-way to be filled with earth. This improvement—as Robbins wished to have vaults to his new store—rendered necessary a curb-wall from the natural surface of the ground to the height of the grade. By its position—about sixteen feet from the building—this wall would give, so far as the space beside it was covered over (an extent of about eleven feet), a vault for storage, and where open—as five feet would be left by another or area-wall—an area immediately adjoining the edifice, by means of which light and air would be given to it. Encroachments on the street to the width of five feet were apparently allowable by the city ordinance.

In making this area there was some excavation or digging away of the natural soil, but the testimony of Button tended to show that what earth was thus removed was replaced by sand and other material used in flooring the space, and that the principal space was procured by the raising of the street and the erection of the wall and the edifice beside it. The depth of the space was seven or eight feet.

By his contract, Button was to be liable for any violation of the city ordinances in obstructing the sidewalks or for accidents arising therefrom; but there was no specific provision that he or any other contractor should provide proper lights or guards. There were lamps at a bridge not very far off, and one at an alley sixty-four feet from the area.

Possession of the ground was given to Button on the 1st of April, 1856, and the excavation and walls making the space were in effect raised some time during the spring; the city about the same time filling the carriage-way with earth.

Button, by the terms of his contract, was to finish his work by the 1st September, 1856, but he did not in fact complete it till February, 1857. However, the sidewalk—eleven feet—which was made by broad flagging stones placed over the two walls, was finished in the autumn; the area, which was intended to be covered with iron grating, and which when so covered would have been thrown, in a manner, into the sidewalk, not being as yet so covered.

In all respects, however, except this protection of grating to passers by, the area, it seemed, was substantially finished and ready to be covered by grating before the 19th of December. With the grating Button had nothing to do; that being a matter, with the rest of the iron-work of the building, contracted for by another person.

From the time that the area was made until the grating was put there, it was covered, as the whole space, before the sidewalk was completed, by laying flagging, had been more or less by joists, the covering being sometimes very slight, and the area—which ran along the whole side of the building, one hundred and fifty feet—sometimes wholly uncovered.

Robbins was in Chicago, and during the summer and early autumn occasionally at the building. Later in the season, when ice was on the sidewalk, the city superintendent spoke to him about the dangerous condition of the area; suggested a mode in which, at a small cost, it could be made safe; telling him, at the same time, that if it happened any time to be sleety, and people should be passing by his building rapidly, and the covering was not attended to, smoebody would be hurt—'a neck or a leg broke'—and the city have damages to pay.

To this Robbins replied, that it was 'more the contractor's business than his,' or was 'wholly the contractor's business,' but that he would speak to him. Previously to this the chief clerk of the superintendent's office, by direction of the superintendent, had written to Robbins, giving him notice of the dangerous condition of the place; and the clerk and superintendent, who were often in that neighborhood, and were struck with this condition, had, themselves, once or oftener, covered it with plank. The contractor was told about it also, and he spoke several times to his foreman on the subject.

On Sunday evening, December 28th, 1856, the night being stormy, Woodbury, who was passing the place, and in walking had to face the storm, fell down the area, which had been left or had become uncovered from Saturday night, and was severely hurt. He soon after brought suit against the city for damages.

The city attorney, Mr. Marsh, whose duty it was to defend the suit, now applied to Robbins to assist him in procuring testimony. Robbins told him of one Livingston, who had boarded at the same place with Woodbury at the time of the accident, whose idea was that Woodbury's injuries were not so great as he pretended, and who would therefore be a good witness for the city. Robbins promised to write to him, and afterwards informed Marsh that he had done so. The day of the trial or the day before it, Marsh, casually meeting Robbins at the foot of the stairway of the court-house, remarked to him that the suit was about to be tried, or was coming on; but he did not tell him in what court the suit was, nor did he ever give Robbins any notice that the city would look to him for indemnity for what it might have to pay Woodbury; he 'never having talked with Robbins in reference to the case with any such idea as that,' the only object being to prepare the defence. Marsh did not state to Robbins that be was the city attorney, but the parties were long and intimately acquainted with each other, meeting almost daily, and Marsh presumed as of course, that Robbins knew that fact.

Woodbury recovered in his suit $15,000 damages, which the city paid.

A provision of the city charter in force at the time when Robbins built his area, declared that

'All owners in front of whose premises the common council should direct sidewalks to be constructed, should make such sidewalks at their own cost, and if not so made, that the council might make them and assess the cost against the premises.'

The controversy had already been before this tribunal, when a judgment in favor of Robbins had been reversed.1

The court below now charged the jury, in substance, as follows:

'The law is, that although the city is primarily liable for an injury suffered by reason of the dangerous condition of the streets and sidewalks, yet the corporation has a remedy over against the party that is in fault, and has so used the streets and sidewalks as to produce the injury.

'The question, then, is, whether Robbins is answerable to the city for the judgment recovered by Woodbury.

'If it was through the fault of Robbins that Woodbury was injured, he is concluded by the judgment recovered against the city, if he knew that the suit was pending and could have defended it.

'It is not necessary that the city should have given him an express notice to defend the suit, nor is it necessary that the city should have notified him that it would look to him for indemnity. If Marsh, the attorney for the city, told him of the pendency of the suit, what it was for; told him of the day of the trial, and talked to him about the testimony of a witness, he is as much chargeable with notice as if he had been directly told that he could contest Woodbury's right to recover, and that the city would look to him for indemnity.

'It is not requisite that Marsh should have informed him that he was city attorney. If Robbins knew the fact, he did not need to be informed of it.

'It is urged that Robbins was not informed by March, in what particular court the action was pending. This was not necessary. When Robbins was told that Woodbury had sued the city for falling into an area which he had built, then it was his duty to have ascertained in what particular court the action was to be tried.

'Was it through the fault of Robbins that the accident to Woodbury happened? The building was commenced in the spring of 1856. The grade of Wells Street had been ordered to be raised by the city, but was not actually raised until the summer of 1856. There is testimony tending to show that when Robbins removed the old sidewalk, which was on the natural surface of the ground, he removed very little earth in order to make this area. There is also testimony tending to show that what earth he did remove was replaced by sand and other materials, and it is contended that although he might be liable if there were proper allegations in the declaration, yet he is not liable in this suit, because the declaration says that he wrongfully and unjustly dug a large hold or pit, and the digging, if any was done, did not contribute to produce the injury. But if the declaration charges him with digging a large hole or pit, it also charges him with opening and making one, and in the opinion of ...

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