Thecase Parrot v. Wells, Fargo Co, NITRO-GLYCERINE

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtFIELD
Citation15 Wall. 524,21 L.Ed. 206,82 U.S. 524
Decision Date01 December 1872
Docket NumberNITRO-GLYCERINE
PartiesTHECASE. PARROT v. WELLS, FARGO & CO

82 U.S. 524
21 L.Ed. 206
15 Wall. 524
THE NITRO-GLYCERINE CASE.
PARROT
v.
WELLS, FARGO & CO.
December Term, 1872

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of California.

Parrot brought an action in the court below against certain defendants who composed the well-known firm of Wells, Fargo & Co., express carriers, to recover damages for injuries to certain large buildings owned by him in the city of San Francisco, caused in April, 1866, by the explosion of

Page 525

nitro-glycerine whilst in charge of the said defendants. The action was originally begun in the State court of California, and was thence removed, on motion of the defendants, to the Circuit Court of the United States, where it was tried by the court without the intervention of a jury, by stipulation of the parties, under the recent act of Congress.

The complaint contained four counts. The first, was for technical waste by the landlord against his tenant from year to year, based on a statute of California. The waste was charged to have resulted from negligently introducing an explosive substance, &c., and treble damages were claimed.

The other counts were for injuries to premises demised to the defendants, and to the reversionary interest of the plaintiff in premises demised to other tenants, caused by the defendants, by themselves and their servants carelessly, negligently, and improvidently introducing upon the premises occupied by them, a box containing the explosive substance, and so carelessly, negligently, and unskilfully examining, handling, moving, and striking the box as to produce the explosion of the substance, causing the injuries complained of.

The answer joined issue on all the material allegations of the complaint; also set up a lease under which defendants occupied, and a right to carry on the business of expressmen in the demised premises; and also averred a repair of the demised premises, before suit brought, to the satisfaction of the plaintiff and with his approbation.

The facts of the case as found by the court were substantially these:

The plaintiff, being owner of the buildings injured, let, in November, 1855, a portion of them—the basement and first floors with the vaults and banking fixtures therein, together with a brick warehouse in the rear—to the defendants for a term of two years from the first of January, 1856. The lease contained covenants that the lessees would not receive in the demised premises, either for their own account or on storage, or allow any person to place therein 'gunpowder, alcohol, or any other articles dangerous from their combustibility;'

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that they would, during the term of the lease, 'occupy the premises solely for the business of their calling,' which was that of bankers and expressmen, and at the expiration of their term would 'quit and surrender the said demised premises with all the fixtures therein contained in as good condition as the reasonable use and wear thereof would permit, damages by the elements excepted.' The rent stipulated was $12,000 a year, payable in montly instalments of $1000 each month in advance. The lease was on two occasions subsequently renewed on the same terms, once for two years from January, 1858, and again for two years from January, 1860. After the expiration of the latter term the premises were held over from year to year with the assent of the plaintiff, though without any special agreement on his part, and were thus held on the 16th of April, 1866, when the injuries complained of were caused, the defendants paying rent in accordance with the terms of the original lease. The remaining portions of the buildings—being mostly portions above the part occupied by Wells, Fargo & Co.—were at the time let to other tenants.

The premises occupied by the defendants were used by them for their business, as stipulated in the lease. They were engaged in the business of public express carriers in the States and Territories of the Pacific coast, and between New York and San Francisco by way of the Isthmus of Panama, using on the latter route the steamships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, running between New York and Aspinwall on the Atlantic side, and Panama and San Francisco on the Pacific side, to convey their express matter, and transporting the same across the isthmus by the Panama railroad. In 1866 the steamers left New York on the 1st, 11th, and 21st days of each month, and it was a regulation of the company that no express freight should be received at the wharf in New York on those days. On the afternoon of March 11th, 1866, and after the steamer sailing that day had left for Aspinwall, a man brought to the wharf from which the steamer had taken her departure, a case to be carried to California, and asked an employ e of the defendants

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to receive it for that purpose. The employ e informed him that it was too late to receive freight on that day, but that he could leave the case at his own risk and come the next day and get a receipt. He thereupon placed the case on the dock opposite the freight office of the company. The employ e noticed at the time that the case had not been marked or strapped, as required by the regulations of the company, and called the man's attention to the omission; whereupon he requested the employ e to mark and strap the case at his expense. The case was accordingly strapped as required, and was marked with the proper address of the person for whom it was intended in California. Two days afterwards the man returned and obtained a receipt from the proper clerk of the company. The case remained on the dock where deposited till the next steamer left New York, when it was taken with other freight. At the time the case was presented it was clean and appeared to be in perfect condition. There was nothing in its appearance calculated to awaken any suspicion as to its contents. It required strapping and marking, and when this was done it was in proper condition for shipment. The case was an ordinary wooden box about two and a half feet square, and weighed three hundred and twenty-nine pounds. Nothing was said upon its delivery, or upon taking the receipt afterwards, or at any other time, about the contents of the case to the defendants, or to any of their employees, nor were any questions subsequently asked by any one respecting the contents. The case was shipped for California with a large quantity of other express freight, amounting to several thousand cases, on the steamer that left New York on the 21st of March, 1866. It was carried to Aspinwall, thence transported over the Panama railroad, reshipped on a steamer at Panama, and arrived in San Francisco on the 13th or 14th of April. On the afternoon of the 14th it was taken from the steamer and placed upon the wharf, when it was discovered that the contents were leaking. These contents had the appearance of sweet oil. Another box of similar size had been stained by the contents leaking and appeared to

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be damaged. On the 16th of April, in accordance with the regular and ordinary course of the defendants' business, when express freight is found to be damaged, the two boxes were taken to the defendants' building, the premises in question, for examination. The agent of the steamship company was requested to send a representative to be present at the examination so that it might be determined, if possible, by inspection, where the responsibility rested between the two companies for the injury to the case. A representative of the company accordingly attended, and in his presence, and in the presence of an agent of the defendants, and of other persons, an employ e of the defendants, by their direction, with a mallet and chisel, proceeded to open the case, and while thus engaged the substance contained in it exploded, instantly killing all the parties present, and causing the destruction of a large amount of property, and the injuries to the buildings occupied by the defendants, for which the present action was brought. Upon subsequent examination it was ascertained that the substance contained in the case was nitro-glycerine or glonoin oil. The other box contained silverware.

Notro-glycerine, according to the account given of it in the record, in its pure condition, is a nearly colorless substance, but when impure it has the color and consistency of sweet oil. It is a liquid which, under some conditions, explodes with great violence, its explosion being produced by percussion and concussion, and by a high degree of pressure, but not by contact with fire. If a flame be applied it will burn slowly without exploding, and if the flame be withdrawn it will cease to burn. It will also explode upon being subjected to a heat of 360 degrees Fahrenheit, and in explosion combustion takes place. When kept in closed vessels it gradually decomposes, and in decomposing disengages gases, the pressure alone of which may cause an explosion. In this case the nitro-glycerine in some of the cans in the case had become partially decomposed, generating gases and producing pressure within the cans and a tendency to explode. In this condition of decomposition the percussion or concussion

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caused by opening the box with the mallet and chisel, operating in connection with the internal pressure, produced the explosion.

The discovery of this substance was first announced at Paris, in 1847, but, prior to 1864, experiments with it were confined almost entirely to the laboratory of the chemist. It was manufactured only in small quantities for scientific purposes. In that year a gentleman in Europe by the name of Noble suggested that it might be used for blasting purposes, and in the following year he made experiments with it, demonstrating its extraordinary power, and succeeded in introducing it to a limited extent into some of the European quarries and mines. An account of its properties was also published during that year in England and in a scientific...

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121 practice notes
  • Ives v. South Buffalo Ry. Co.
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • March 24, 1911
    ...and with a brief reference to them we shall close this branch of the discussion. In the nitroglycerine case (Parrot v. Wells, Fargo & Co., 15 Wall. 524, 21 L. Ed. 206) the plaintiff, who was the common landlord of the defendants and other tenants, sought to hold the defendants liable for da......
  • U.S. v. Pryba, No. 24788
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • July 29, 1974
    ...291, 139 Eng.Rep. 105, 120, 121, 122 (Com.Pleas 1854). See also Nitro-Glycerine Case (Parrott v. Wells), 82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 524, 535-536, 21 L.Ed. 206 (1872); Bruskas v. Railway Express Agency, 172 F.2d 915, 918 (10th Cir. 1949). As the Court in Bruskas The carrier was under no duty to asce......
  • U.S. v. Rodriguez, No. 78-5108
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • April 13, 1979
    ...Rpts. 331 (1828); Brass v. Maitland, 6 Ellis & Blackburn's Rpts. 470 (1856); Parrott v. Wells, Fargo & Co. (The Nitro-Glycerine Case), 15 Wall. 524, 82 U.S. 524, 21 L.Ed. 206 (1872). See generally J. Ridley, The Law of Carriage of Goods by Land, Sea & Air, (Shaw & Sons, London, 3d ed. 1971)......
  • Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Company, No. 194
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • June 29, 1962
    ...the evidence should have been admitted. Knowledge of danger is relevant to a determination of negligence, the Nitro-Glycerin Case, 15 Wall. 524, 536-537, 82 U.S. 524, 536-537, 21 L.Ed. 206 (1873), and evidence that such knowledge was gained through an express communication is admissible. 2 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
121 cases
  • Ives v. South Buffalo Ry. Co.
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • March 24, 1911
    ...and with a brief reference to them we shall close this branch of the discussion. In the nitroglycerine case (Parrot v. Wells, Fargo & Co., 15 Wall. 524, 21 L. Ed. 206) the plaintiff, who was the common landlord of the defendants and other tenants, sought to hold the defendants liable for da......
  • U.S. v. Pryba, No. 24788
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • July 29, 1974
    ...291, 139 Eng.Rep. 105, 120, 121, 122 (Com.Pleas 1854). See also Nitro-Glycerine Case (Parrott v. Wells), 82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 524, 535-536, 21 L.Ed. 206 (1872); Bruskas v. Railway Express Agency, 172 F.2d 915, 918 (10th Cir. 1949). As the Court in Bruskas The carrier was under no duty to asce......
  • U.S. v. Rodriguez, No. 78-5108
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • April 13, 1979
    ...Rpts. 331 (1828); Brass v. Maitland, 6 Ellis & Blackburn's Rpts. 470 (1856); Parrott v. Wells, Fargo & Co. (The Nitro-Glycerine Case), 15 Wall. 524, 82 U.S. 524, 21 L.Ed. 206 (1872). See generally J. Ridley, The Law of Carriage of Goods by Land, Sea & Air, (Shaw & Sons, London, 3d ed. 1971)......
  • Fitzgerald v. United States Lines Company, No. 194
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • June 29, 1962
    ...the evidence should have been admitted. Knowledge of danger is relevant to a determination of negligence, the Nitro-Glycerin Case, 15 Wall. 524, 536-537, 82 U.S. 524, 536-537, 21 L.Ed. 206 (1873), and evidence that such knowledge was gained through an express communication is admissible. 2 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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