Washingtonco v. Lansden

Decision Date16 January 1899
Docket NumberNo. 43,GAS-LIGHT,43
Citation43 L.Ed. 543,172 U.S. 534,19 S.Ct. 296
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

R. Ross Perry and Walter D. Davidge, for plaintiffs in error.

J. J. Darlington and J. Altheus Johnson, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice PECKHAM delivered the opinion of the court.

This action was brought by the defendant in error, plaintiff below, in the supreme court of the District of Columbia, against the Washington Gas-Light Company; John R. McLean, its president; Charles B. Bailey, its secretary; William B. Orme, its assistant secretary; and John Leetch, its general mannager. The action was brought to recover damages for an alleged libel, which the plaintiff stated the defendants had published or caused to be published of and concerning him, in a periodical printed in the city of New York, called 'The Progressive Age.' The plaintiff recovered a verdict of $12,500 against the corporation defendant, its secretary Bailey, and its general manager Leetch. There seems to have been no finding as to the other defendants.

Those defendants against whom the verdict was rendered brought the case by appeal to the court of appeals for the District, where the judgment was affirmed (9 App. D. C. 508), and the defendants then brought the case here on writ of error.

It appears from the declaration that a committee of the house of representatives, in January, 1893, having in charge the sundry civil appropriation bill, had therein provided that not more than 75 cents per thousand feet should be paid for gas used in the government buildings i the District of Columbia. The gas company desired to defeat this provision in the bill, and the president, Mr. McLean, sent for the plaintiff below, who was general manager of the company, for the purpose of inquiring what the plaintiff could testify to in regard to the price of gas, if called before the committee. The president asked the plaintiff to furnish him with a writ- ten memorandum, showing generally what he could testify to, and which he might use as a basis for questions to be put to him by some member of the committee. The plaintiff wrote out such a memorandum, but did not mention therein the cost of gas to the defendant company, and when the president noticed the omission he asked the plaintiff what the cost would be, and plaintiff stated that that was a matter which should come from the chief officers of the company, and which was unknown to him.

The plaintiff did not testify before the committee at that session of congress.

Thereafter, and in February, 1894, and when not requested by the president of the company, or any of its officers or agents, the plaintiff did appear before a committee of congress, and did testify to figures at which plaintiff supposed gas could be actually produced and furnished in the city of Washington.

The plaintiff then alleged that the defendants, in the month of February, 1894, published or caused to be published in a newspaper or periodical called 'The Progressive Age,' which was printed in the city of New York, and widely circulated as an organ devoted to the interests of gas producers and manufacturers throughout the country, the libel in question.

The article states, in substance, as follows: The plaintiff had once filled the position of general manager of the gas company, which he had resigned in June, 1893, and that in his testimony before the congressional committee in 1894 the plaintiff had arrayed himself within the ranks of those who sought to tear down and lay waste the business and emoluments of his former employers. He gave testimony, which was reported through the land, and was of such a nature as was calculated to do the utmost harm to gas interests everywhere. The figures supplied by Mr. Lansden of the cost of gas were startling, and only a year ago (in 1893) a similar inquiry emanating from the same quarter was instituted before a congressional committee against the Washington Gas-Light Company, and plaintiff appeared as a witness in behalf of the company; that he then occupied the position of general manager of the company, and his testimony then, as compared with that given subsequently, was sadly at variance; that he had there testified before the committee that it cost 48.38 cents per thousand to manufacture gas in the holder, and 40.09 cents per thousand for distribution, and that he knew of but one way that a small amount could be saved, and that was by reducing the salaries of the clerks and the price paid to the laborers, which the company would not like to do. In 1894, before a committee of congress, the plaintiff testified that, from his knowledge of the business and the condition of affairs at Washington, the gas company could sell gas and pay a reasonable profit at $§ a thousand. He stated that, in his opinion, the gas could be manufactured and put in the holder for about 32 cents a thousand feet, and that it ought to be distributed for from 20 to 22 cents a thousand, which would make the whole cost from 52 to 54 cents per thousand. The article then continued:

'From the foregoing extracts of this witness' testimony only one of two conclusions can be arrived at, and we are too sensible of the reader's power of analysis, and feel too keenly for the witness, to heap coals of fire on the head of one who, it is only too evident, has allowed his sense of justice to be distorted by real or fancied grievances. The testimony given by Mr. Lansden in 1893 states in effect that there is no way open to his company by which it could reduce the cost of manufacturing gas. In 1894 he tells the committee that—taxes and repairs added, items not considered in the inquiry of the previous year—the cost of gas delivered to the consumer could be brought within seventy cents, or about eighteen and one-half cents less per thousand than he quoted as the lowest manufacturing and distributing cost the year before; and yet Mr. Lansden must know that the generating apparatus at the Washington works is the same as when he filled the position as superintendent; that the cost of all materials used, coal, and labor are just the same, save only naphtha, which is now higher in price than when he testified a year ago.'

For publishing, or causing to be published, this article, the plaintiff brought this action.

The defendants joined in their plea of not guilty, and the plaintiff joined issue thereon. After verdict, a motion for a new trial was made, and denied, and judgment entered upon the verdict.

The questions which present themselves in this record relate primarily to the liability of each of the plaintiffs in error, and those questions depend for their proper solution upon the evidence set forth in the record.

And, first, in regard to the liability of the corporation: From the evidence it appears that, at the time of the publication of the libel, John Leetch was the general manager of the gas company. After the plaintiff had been sworn before the congressional committee, in February, 1894, one E. C. Brown, who was the publisher of the periodical called 'The Progressive Age,' and who lived in the city of New York, wrote a letter, under date New York, February 12, 1894, addressed on the inside to the Washington Gas-Light Company, Washington, D. C. That letter reads as follows:

'Gentlemen: I have watched with great interest the continued reports of the proceedings against your company, as published in the local newspapers of your city, and I have been somewhat surprised at the character and extent of Mr. Lansden's testimony. Were his statements correctly reported in the Washington Star of 3d inst.? Newspapers all over the country are taking up his figures, and using them to suit their own ends against home companies. Any information you would care to give us concerning the object of Mr. Lansden's attack will be considered confidential as to source of information.

'Very truly yours,

E. C. Brown.'

The envelope enclosing this letter was addressed to 'John Leetch, Manager Washington Gas-Light Co.'

In reply to that letter, Mr. Leetch wrote the following 'Washington, D. C., Feb. 13, 1894.

'E. C. Brown, Esq., Publisher Progressive Age, 280 Broadway, N. Y.—Dear Sir: I have just now received yours of the 12th instant, relative to the statement made by Mr. T. G. Lansden, former sup't of the Washington Gas-Light Company, before the investigating committee of congress to reduce the price of gas in this city.

'As Mr. Lansden is no longer in the employ of the gas company, the motive was generally understood that prompted his statement.

'As the newspapers in Washington gave a correct version of his statement, there is no doubt he said that gas could be furnished at the meter for 70 cents and to the consumer for $1.00 per 1,000 cubic feet. This price at the meter was exclusive of repairs, services, etc.

'Under a former resolution of congress, bearing date of February, 1893, Mr. Lansden was called upon the answer certain questions bearing upon the reduction of price of gas in Washington, and made the following replies:

'Q. What does gas cost to manufacture at your works?

'A. It costs us 48.38 cents per thousand in the holder, and 40.09 cents per thousand for distribution.

"Q. Can you in any way reduce the cost of gas in the manufacturing, so your company could sell for less to the consumer?

"A. I know of but one way that a small amount could be saved, that is, by reducing the salaries of our clerks and the price paid to our laborers. This we would not like to do.

"Q. How do the prices charged for lamps in Washington compare with ther cities?

"A. They are as low as any where the same amount of gas is burned to the lamp, and the same number of hours lighted in the year, and when the company lights and cleans the lamps.'

'You will notice that he makes a difference of about 18 1/2 cents per 1,000 feet then, as compared with his statement now although he must know that the material used, coal, and labor, is just the same...

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