117 U.S. 490 (1886)

DINGLEY & Another v. OLER & Another. OLER & Another v. DINGLEY & Another.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided April 5, 1886.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Orville Dewey Baker for Dingley and another. Mr. Leslie C. Cornish was with him on the brief.

Mr. Bernard Carter for Oler & Co.

MR. JUSTICE MATTHEWS, after stating the case as above reported, delivered the opinion of the court.

We agree in opinion with the Circuit Court that, according to the terms of the contract, the defendants had the option of delivering the ice contracted for at any time during the whole shipping season of 1880, giving to the plaintiffs reasonable notice of the time when fixed, and an opportunity to prepare for receiving and taking it away from the defendants' houses. The language of the contract was that the defendants were to "return the same (the ice) to you next year from our houses." Next year, it is not denied, means the shipping season of 1880, during which navigation was open, and in time for the plaintiffs, on notice, to obtain vessels, send them to the ice houses for loading, and get out of the river before it was closed to navigation. The defendants were to deliver, and although that, under the circumstances, required nothing on their part but to be ready for the plaintiffs to receive and load on their vessels, that state of readiness might depend upon other engagements of the defendants in respect to ice in the same houses, so that they had the right under the terms of the contract to consult their convenience as to the particular day when they would furnish to the plaintiffs the ice for shipment. The first and principal act to be done under the contract was to be done by the defendants, that is, the delivery, and the words of the agreement are fully satisfied when that is done at any reasonable time within the season of 1880. And this confers upon the defendants, bound to make the delivery, the choice of the time within the period permitted by the contract. Wheeler v. New Brunswick & Canada Railroad Co., 115 U.S. 29.

We differ, however, from the opinion of the Circuit Court that the defendants are to be considered, from the language of their letters above set out, as having renounced the contract by a refusal to perform, within the meaning of the rule which, it is assumed, in such a case, confers upon the plaintiffs a right of action before the expiration of the contract period for performance. We do not so construe the correspondence between the parties. In the letter of July 7th, the defendants say: "We must, therefore, decline to ship the ice for you this season, and claim, as our right, to pay you for the ice, in cash, at the price you offered it to other parties here, or give you ice when the market reaches that point." Although in this extract they decline to ship the ice that season, it is accompanied with the expression of an alternative intention, and that is, to ship it, as must be understood, during that season, if and when the market price should reach the point which, in their opinion, the plaintiffs ought to be willing to accept as its fair price between them. It was not intended, we think, as a final and absolute declaration that the contract must be regarded as altogether off, so far as their performance was concerned, and it was not so treated by the plaintiffs. For, in their answer of July 10th, they repeat their demand for delivery immediately, speak of the letter of the 7th instant as asking "for a postponement of the delivery," urge them "to fill our order," and close with "hoping you (the defendants) will take a more favorable view upon further reflection," &c. Here, certainly, was a locus penitentiœ conceded to the defendants by the plaintiffs themselves, and a request for further consideration, based upon a renewed demand, instead of abiding by and standing upon the previous one.

Accordingly, on July 15th, the defendants replied to the demand for an immediate delivery to meet the exigency of the plaintiffs' sale of the same ice to others, and the letter is evidently and expressly confined to an answer to the particular demand for a delivery at that time. They accordingly say: "Now you ask us at a time when we are pressed by our sales and by short supply threatening us and others, to deliver to you the equivalent in tons of the ice taken from you under the circumstances stated. This does not seem to us to be fair," &c. "We cannot, therefore, comply with your request to deliver to you the ice claimed, and respectfully submit that you ought not to ask this of us in view of the fact stated herein and in ours of the 7th." This, we think, is very far from being a positive, unconditional, and unequivocal declaration of fixed purpose not to perform the contract in any event or at any time. In view of the consequences sought to be deduced and claimed as a matter of law to follow, the defendants have a right to claim that their expressions, sought to be converted into a renunciation of the contract, shall not be enlarged by construction beyond their strict meaning.

The view taken by the Circuit Court of the correspondence and conduct of the parties, and which we hold to be erroneous, brought the case within the rule laid down by the English courts in Hochster v. De la Tour, 2 El. & Bl. 678; Frost v. Knight, L.R. 7 Ex. 111; Danube & Black Sea Railway Co. v. Xenos, 11 C.B.N.S. 152, and which, in Roper v. Johnson, L.R. 8 C.P. 167, 178, was called a novel doctrine, followed by the courts of several of the States, Crabtree v. Messersmith, 19 Iowa, 179; Holloway v. Griffith, 32 Iowa, 409; Fox v. Kitton, 19 Ill. 519; Chamber of Commerce v. Sollitt, 43 Ill. 519; Dugan v. Anderson, 36 Maryland, 567; Burtis v. Thompson, 42 N.Y. 246, but disputed and denied by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Daniels v. Newton, 114 Mass. 530, and never applied in this court. Accordingly, the right to maintain the present action was justified upon the principle supposed to be established by those cases.

The construction we place upon what passed between the parties renders it unnecessary for us to discuss or decide whether the doctrine of these authorities can be maintained as applicable to the class of cases to which the present belongs; for, upon that construction, this case does not come within the operation of the rule invoked.

In Smoot's Case, 15 Wall. 36, this court quoted with approval the qualifications stated by Benjamin on Sales, 1st ed. 424, 2d ed. § 568, that "a mere assertion that the party will be unable, or will refuse to perform his contract, is not sufficient; it must be a distinct and unequivocal absolute refusal to perform the promise, and must be treated and acted upon as such by the party to whom the promise was made; for, if he afterwards continue to urge or demand a compliance with the contract, it is plain that he does not understand it to be at an end."

We do not find any such refusal to have been given or acted upon in the present case, and the facts are not stronger than those in Avery v. Bowden, 5 El. & Bl. 714; S.C., 6 El. & Bl. 953; which were held not to constitute a breach or renunciation of the contract. The most recent English case on the subject is that of Johnstone v. Milling, in the Court of Appeal, 16 Q.B.D. 460, decided in January of the present year, which holds that the words or conduct relied on as a breach of the contract by anticipation must amount to a total refusal to perform it, and that that does not by itself amount to a breach of the contract unless so acted upon and adopted by the other party.

The present action was prematurely brought before there had been a breach of the contract, even in this sense, by the defendants, for what they said on July 15th amounted merely to a refusal to comply with the particular demand then made for an immediate delivery.

The judgment is accordingly reversed upon the writ of error sued out by the defendants below, and the cause remanded, with instructions to take further proceedings therein according to law; and upon the writ of error of plaintiffs below judgment will be given that they take nothing by their writ of error.


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