April 23rd, 1883



Stephen Johnson Field

108 U.S. 317 (1883)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided April 23d, 1883.

*326 Mr. Enoch Totten for the plaintiff in error.

Mr. R.T. Merrick and Mr. J.J. Darlington for defendant in error.

*328 MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.

If the facts are established which the evidence tended to *329 prove, and from the verdict of the jury we must so infer, there can be no doubt of the right of the plaintiff to recover. The engine house and repair shop of the railroad company, as they were used, rendered it impossible for the plaintiff to occupy its building with any comfort as a place of public worship. The hammering in the shop, the rumbling of the engines passing in and out of the engine house, the blowing off of steam, the ringing of bells, the sounding of whistles, and the smoke from the chimneys, with its cinders, dust, and offensive odors, created a constant disturbance of the religious exercises of the church. The noise was often so great that the voice of the pastor while preaching could not be heard. The chimneys of the engine house being lower than the windows of the church, smoke and cinders sometimes entered the latter in such quantities as to cover the seats of the church with soot and soil the garments of the worshippers. Disagreeable odors, added to the noise, smoke, and cinders, rendered the place not only uncomfortable but almost unendurable as a place of worship. As a consequence, the congregation decreased in numbers, and the Sunday school was less numerously attended than previously.

Plainly the engine house and repair shop, as they were used by the railroad company, were a nuisance in every sense of the term. They interfered with the enjoyment of property which was acquired by the plaintiff long before they were built, and was held as a place for religious exercises, for prayer and worship; and they disturbed and annoyed the congregation and Sunday school which assembled there on the Sabbath and on different evenings of the week. That is a nuisance which annoys and disturbs one in the possession of his property, rendering its ordinary use or occupation physically uncomfortable to him. For such annoyance and discomfort the courts of law will afford redress by giving damages against the wrongdoer, and when the cause of the annoyance and discomfort are continuous, courts of equity will interfere and restrain the nuisance. Crump v. Lambert, L.R. 3 Eq. 409.

The right of the plaintiff to recover for the annoyance and discomfort to its members in the use of its property, and the liability of the defendant to respond in damages for causing *330 them, are not affected by their corporate character. Private corporations are but associations of individuals united for some common purpose, and permitted by the law to use a common name, and to change its members without a dissolution of the association. Whatever interferes with the comfortable use of their property, for the purposes of their formation, is as much the subject of complaint as though the members were united by some other than a corporate tie. Here the plaintiff, the Fifth Baptist Church, was incorporated that it might hold and use an edifice, erected by it, as a place of public worship for its members and those of similar faith meeting with them. Whatever prevents the comfortable use of the property for that purpose by the members of the corporation, or those who, by its permission, unite with them in the church, is a disturbance and annoyance, as much so as if access by them to the church was impeded and rendered inconvenient and difficult. The purpose of the organization is thus thwarted. It is sufficient to maintain the action to show that the building of the plaintiff was thus rendered less valuable for the purposes to which it was devoted.

The liability of the defendant for the annoyance and discomfort caused is the same also as that of individuals for a similar wrong. The doctrine which formerly was sometimes asserted, that an action will not lie against a corporation for a tort, is exploded. The same rule in that respect now applies to corporations as to individuals. They are equally responsible for injuries done in the course of their business by their servants. This is so well settled as not to require the citation of any authorities in its support.

It is no answer to the action of the plaintiff that the railroad company was authorized by act of Congress to bring its track within the limits of the city of Washington, and to construct such works as were necessary and expedient for the completion and maintenance of its road, and that the engine house and repair shop in question were thus necessary and expedient; that they are skilfully constructed; that the chimneys of the engine house are higher than required by the building regulations of the city, and that as little smoke and noise are caused as the nature of the business in them will permit.

*331 In the first place, the authority of the company to construct such works as it might deem necessary and expedient for the completion and maintenance of its road did not authorize it to place them wherever it might think proper in the city, without reference to the property and rights of others. As well might it be contended that the act permitted it to place them immediately in front of the President’s house or of the Capitol, or in the most densely populated locality. Indeed, the corporation does assert a right to place its works upon property it may acquire anywhere in the city.

Whatever the extent of the authority conferred, it was accompanied with this implied qualification, that the works should not be so placed as by their use to unreasonably interfere with and disturb the peaceful and comfortable enjoyment of others in their property. Grants of privileges or powers to corporate bodies, like those in question, confer no license to use them in disregard of the private rights of others, and with immunity for their invasion. The great principle of the common law, which is equally the teaching of Christian morality, so to use one’s property as not to injure others, forbids any other application or use of the rights and powers conferred.

Undoubtedly a railway over the public highways of the District, including the streets of the city of Washington, may be authorized by Congress, and if, when used with reasonable care, it produces only that incidental inconvenience which unavoidably follows the additional occupation of the streets by its cars with the noises and disturbances necessarily attending their use, no one can complain that he is incommoded. Whatever consequential annoyance may necessarily follow from the running of cars on the road with reasonable care is damnum absque injuria. The private inconvenience in such case must be suffered for the public accommodation.

But the case at bar is not of that nature. It is a case of the use by the railroad company of its property in such an unreasonable way as to disturb and annoy the plaintiff in the occupation of its church to an extent rendering it uncomfortable as a place of worship. It admits indeed of grave doubt whether Congress could authorize the company to occupy and use any *332 premises within the city limits, in a way which would subject others to physical discomfort and annoyance in the quiet use and enjoyment of their property, and at the same time exempt the company from the liability to suit for damages or compensation, to which individuals acting without such authority would be subject under like circumstances. Without expressing any opinion on this point, it is sufficient to observe that such authority would not justify an invasion of others’ property, to an extent which would amount to an entire deprivation of its use and enjoyment, without compensation to the owner. Nor could such authority be invoked to justify acts, creating physical discomfort and annoyance to others in the use and enjoyment of their property, to a less extent than entire deprivation, if different places from those occupied could be used by the corporation for its purposes, without causing such discomfort and annoyance.

The acts that a legislature may authorize, which, without such authorization, would constitute nuisances, are those which affect public highways or public streams, or matters in which the public have an interest and over which the public have control. The legislative authorization exempts only from liability to suits, civil or criminal, at the instance of the State; it does not affect any claim of a private citizen for damages for any special inconvenience and discomfort not experienced by the public at large.

Thus, in Sinnickson v. Johnson, 2 Harr. N.J. at 151, it was held by the Supreme Court of New Jersey that an act of the legislature authorizing an individual to erect a dam across a navigable water constituted no defence to an action for damages for an overflow caused by the dam.

“It may be lawful,” said the court, “for him [the grantee of the power] and his assignees to execute this act, so far as the public interests, the rights of navigation, fishing, &c., are concerned, and he may plead, and successfully plead, the act to any indictment for a nuisance, or against any complaint for an infringement of the public right, but cannot plead it as a justification for a private injury which may result from the execution of the statute.”

*333 In Crittenden v. Wilson, 5 Cow. 165, it was held by the Supreme Court of New York that an act authorizing one to build a dam, on his own land, upon a creek or river which was a public highway, merely protected him from indictment for a nuisance. If, said the court, there had been no express provision in the act for the payment of damages, the defendant would still have been liable to pay them, and the effect of the grant was merely to authorize the defendant to erect a dam, as he might have done, if the stream had been his own, without a grant. In such a case he would have been responsible in damages for all the injury occasioned by it to others.

In Brown v. Cayuga, &c., Railroad Company, 12 N.Y. 486, the company was sued for overflowing plaintiff’s land by means of a cut through the banks of a stream which its road crossed. It pleaded authority by its charter to cross highways and streams, and that the cut in question was necessary to the construction and maintenance of the road. But it was held that the company was liable for damages caused.

“It would be a great stretch,” said the court, “upon the language, and an unwarrantable imputation upon the wisdom and justice of the legislature, to hold that it imports an authority to cross the streams in such a manner as to be the cause of injury to others’ adjoining property.”

And so the court adjudged that the company was under the same obligation as a private owner of the land and stream, had he bridged it; and that the right granted to bridge the stream gave no immunity for damages which the excavation of its banks for that purpose might cause to others.

In Commonwealth v. Kidder, in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, 107 Mass. 188, a statute of that State authorized the storage, keeping, manufacture, and refining of crude petroleum or any of its products in detached and properly ventilated buildings, specially adapted to that purpose; and it was held that it did not justify the refining of petroleum at any place, where a necessary consequence of the manufacture was the emission of vapors which constitute a nuisance at common law by their unwholesome and offensive nature.

*334 Numerous other decisions from the courts of the several States might be cited in support of the position that the grant of powers and privileges to do certain things does not carry with it any immunity for private injuries which may result directly from the exercise of those powers and privileges.

If, as asserted by the defendant, the noise, smoke, and odors, which are the cause of the discomfort and annoyance to the plaintiff, are no more than must necessarily arise from the nature of the business carried on with an engine house and workshop as ordinarily constructed, then the engine house and workshop should be so remodelled and changed in their structure as to prevent, if that be possible, the nuisance complained of; and if that be not possible, they should be removed to some other place where, by their use, the plaintiff would not be thus annoyed and disturbed in the enjoyment of its property. There are many places in the city sufficiently distant from the church to avoid all cause of complaint, and yet sufficiently near the station of the company to answer its purposes.

There are many lawful and necessary occupations which, by the odors they engender, or the noise they create, are nuisances when carried on in the heart of a city, such as the slaughtering of cattle, the training of tallow, the burning of lime, and the like. Their presence near one’s dwelling-house would often render it unfit for habitation. It is a wise police regulation, essential to the health and comfort of the inhabitants of a city, that they should be carried on outside of its limits. Slaughter-houses, lime-kilns, and tallow-furnaces, are, therefore, generally removed from the occupied parts of a city, or located beyond its limits. No permission given to conduct such an occupation within the limits of a city would exempt the parties from liability for damages occasioned to others, however carefully they might conduct their business. Fish v. Dodge, 4 Denio, 311.

The fact that the smokestacks of the engine house were as high as the city regulations for chimneys required, is no answer to the action, if the stacks were too low to keep the smoke out of the plaintiff’s church. In requiring that chimneys should have a certain height, the regulations did not prohibit their *335 being made higher, nor could they release from liability if not made high enough. It is an actionable nuisance to build one’s chimney so low as to cause the smoke to enter his neighbor’s house. If any adjudication is wanted for a rule so obvious, it will be found in the cases of Sampson v. Smith, 8 Sim. 271, and Whitney v. Bartholomew, 21 Conn. 212.

The instruction of the court as to the estimate of damages was correct. Mere depreciation of the property was not the only element for consideration. That might, indeed, be entirely disregarded. The plaintiff was entitled to recover because of the inconvenience and discomfort caused to the congregation assembled, thus necessarily tending to destroy the use of the building for the purposes for which it was erected and dedicated. The property might not be depreciated in its salable or market value, if the building had been entirely closed for those purposes by the noise, smoke, and odors of the defendant’s shops. It might then, perhaps, have brought in the market as great a price to be used for some other purpose. But, as the court below very properly said to the jury, the congregation had the same right to the comfortable enjoyment of its house for church purposes that a private gentleman has to the comfortable enjoyment of his own house, and it is the discomfort and annoyance in its use for those purposes which is the primary consideration in allowing damages. As with a blow on the face, there may be no arithmetical rule for the estimate of damages. There is, however, an injury, the extent of which the jury may measure.

Judgment affirmed.