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PRIMROSE v. WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY.

decided: May 26, 1894.

PRIMROSE
v.
WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY.



ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA.

Author: Gray

[ 154 U.S. Page 12]

 MR. JUSTICE GRAY, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

This was an action by the sender of a telegraphic message against the telegraph company to recover damages for a mistake in the transmission of the message, which was in cipher, intelligible only to the sender and to his own agent, to whom it was addressed. The plaintiff paid the usual rate for this message, and did not pay for a repetition or insurance of it.

The blank form of message, which the plaintiff filled up and signed, and which was such as he had constantly used, had upon its face, immediately above the place for writing the message, the printed words, "Send the following message

[ 154 U.S. Page 13]

     subject to the terms on back hereof, which are hereby agreed to;" and, just below the place for his signature, this line:

"Read the notice and agreement on back of this blank."

Upon the back of the blank were conspicuously printed the words, "All messages taken by this company are subject to the following terms," which contained the following conditions or restrictions of the liability of the company:

"[1st.] To guard against mistakes or delays, the sender of a message should order it REPEATED; that is, telegraphed back to the original office for comparison. For this, one half the regular rate is charged in addition. It is agreed between the sender of the following message and this company, that said company shall not be liable for mistakes or delays in the transmission or delivery, or for non-delivery, of any UNREPEATED message, whether happening by negligence of its servants or otherwise, beyond the amount received for sending the same;

"[2d.] nor for mistakes or delays in the transmission or delivery, or for non-delivery, of any REPEATED message, beyond fifty times the sum received for sending the same, unless specially insured;

"[3d.] nor in any case for delays arising from unavoidable interruption in the working of its lines, or for errors in cipher or obscure messages."

After stating the rates at which correctness in the transmission of a message may be insured, it is provided that "no employe of the company is authorized to vary the foregoing."

"[4th.] The company will not be liable for damages sor statutory penalties in any case where the claim is not presented in writing within sixty days after the message is filed with the company for transmission."

The conditions or restrictions, the reasonableness and validity of which are directly involved in this case, are that part of the first, by which the company is not to be liable for mistakes in the transmission or delivery of any message, beyond the sum received for sending it, unless the sender orders it to be repeated by being telegraphed back to the originating office for comparison, and pays half that sum in addition; and that

[ 154 U.S. Page 14]

     part of the third, by which the company is not to be liable at all for errors in cipher or obscure messages.

Telegraph companies resemble railroad companies and other common carriers, in that they are instruments of commerce; and in that they exercise a public employment, and are therefore bound to serve all customers alike, without discrimination. They have, doubtless, a duty to the public, to receive, to the extent of their capacity, all messages clearly and intelligibly written, and to transmit them upon reasonable terms. But they are not common carriers; their duties are different, and are performed in different ways; and they are not subject to the same liabilities. Express Co. v. Caldwell, 21 Wall. 264, 269, 270; Telegraph Co. v. Texas, 105 U.S. 460, 464.

The rule of the common law, by which common carriers of goods are held liable for loss or injury by any cause whatever, except the act of God, or of public enemies, does not extend even to warehousemen or wharfingers, or to any other class of bailees, except innkeepers, who, like carriers, have peculiar opportunities for embezzling the goods or for collusion with thieves. The carrier has the actual and manual possession of the goods; the identity of the goods which he receives with those which he delivers can hardly be mistaken; their value can be easily estimated, and may be ascertained by inquiry of the consignor, and the carrier's compensation fixed accordingly; and his liability in damages is measured by the value of the goods.

But telegraph companies are not bailees, in any sense. They are entrusted with nothing but an order or message, which is not to be carried in the form or characters in which it is received, but is to be translated and transmitted through different symbols by means of electricity, and is peculiarly liable to mistakes. The message cannot be the subject of embezzlement; it is of no intrinsic value; its importance cannot be estimated, except by the sender, and often cannot be disclosed by him without danger of defeating his purpose; it may be wholly valueless, if not forwarded immediately; and the measure of damages, for a failure to transmit or

[ 154 U.S. Page 15]

     deliver it, has no relation to any value of the message itself, except as such value may be disclosed by the message, or be agreed between the sender and the company.

As said by Mr. Justice Strong, speaking for this court, in Express Co. v. Caldwell, above cited: "Like common carriers, they cannot contract with their employers for exemption from liability for the consequences of their own negligence. But they may be such contracts, or by their rules and regulations brought to the knowledge of their employers, limit the measure of their responsibility to a reasonable extent. Whether their rules are reasonable or unreasonable must be determined with reference to public policy, precisely as in the case of a carrier."

By the settled law of this court, common carriers of goods or passengers cannot, by any contract with their customers, wholly exempt themselves from liability for damages caused by the negligence of themselves or their servants. Railroad Co. v. Lockwood, 17 Wall. 357; Liverpool Steam Co. v. Phenix Ins. Co., 129 U.S. 397, 442, and cases cited.

But even a common carrier of goods may, by special coutract with the owner, restrict the sum for which he may be liable, even in case of a loss by the carrier's negligence; and this upon the distinct ground, as stated by Mr. Justice Blatchford, speaking for the whole court, that "where a contract of the kind, signed by the shipper, is fairly made, agreeing on the valuation of the property carried, with the rate of freight based on the condition that the carrier assumes liability only to the extent of the agreed valuation, even in case of loss or damage by the negligence of the carrier, the contract will be upheld as a proper and lawful mode of securing a due proportion between the amount for which the carrier may be responsible and the freight he receives, and of protecting himself against extravagant and fanciful valuations." Hart v. Pennsylvania Railroad, 112 U.S. 331, 343.

By the regulation now in question, the telegraph company has not undertaken to wholly exempt itself from liability for negligence; but only to require the sender of the message to have it repeated, and to pay half as much again as the usual

[ 154 U.S. Page 16]

     price, in order to hold the company liable for mistakes or delays in transmitting or delivering, or for not delivering a message, whether happening by negligence of its servants, or otherwise.

In Western Union Tel. Co. v. Hall, 124 U.S. 444, 453, the effect of such a regulation was presented by the certificate of the Circuit Court, but was not passed upon by this court, because it was of opinion that upon the facts of the case the damages claimed were too uncertain and remote.

But the reasonableness and validity of such regulations have been upheld upheld in McAndres v. Electric Tel. Co., 17 C.B. 3, and in Baxter v. Dominion Tel. Co., 37 Upper Canada Q.B. 470, as well as by the great preponderance of authority in this country. Only a few of the principal cases need be cited.

In the earliest American case, decided by the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, the reasons for upholding the validity of a regulation very like that now in question were thus stated: "The public are admonished by the notice, that in order to guard against mistakes in the transmission of messages, every message of importance ought to be repeated. A person desiring to send a message is thus apprised that there may be a mistake in its transmission, to guard against which it is necessary that it should be repeated. He is also notified that if a mistake occur the company will not be responsible for it unless the message be repeated. There is nothing unreasonable in this condition. It gives the party sending the message the option to send it in such a manner as to hold the company responsible, or to send it for a less price at his own risk. If the message be unimportant, he may be willing to risk it without paying the additional charge. But if be important and he wishes to have it sent correctly, he ought to be willing to pay the cost of repeating the message. This regulation, considering the accidents to which the business is liable, is obviously just and reasonable. It does not exempt the company from responsibility, but only fixes the price of that responsibility, and allows the person who sends the message either to transmit it at his own risk at the usual price, or by paying in addition thereto half the usual price to have it repeated, and thus render the company

[ 154 U.S. Page 17]

     liable for any mistake that may occur." Camp v. Western Union Tel. Co., 1 Met. (Ky.) 164, 168.

In Western Union Tel. Co. v. Carew, 15 Mich. 525, 535, 536, the Supreme Court of Michigan held that a similar regulation was a valid part of the contract between the company and the sender, whether he read it or not. "The regulation," said Chief Justice Christiancy, "of most, if not all telegraph companies operating extensive lines, allowing messages to be sent by single transmission for a lower rate of charge, and requiring a larger compensation when repeated, must be considered as highly reasonable, giving to their customers the option of either mode, according to the importance of the message, or any other circumstance which may affect the question." "The printed blank, before the message was written upon sit, was a general proposition to all persons of the terms and conditions upon which messages would be sent. By writing the message under it, signing and delivering it for transmission, the plaintiff below accepted the proposition, and it became a contract upon those terms and conditions."

In Birney v. New York & Washington Tel. Co., 18 Maryland, 341, 358, the Court of Appeals of Maryland, while recognizing the vaidity of similar regulations, held that they did not apply to a case in which no effort was made by the ...


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