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Pollard v. Shaaffer

    Brief Fact Summary. Two parties entered into a lease whereby one agreed to pay a certain amount of rent and return the premises in good order.  The lessee assigned the lessee and the assignee occupied the premises.  While the assignee was in occupation of the premises, the British army took over the premises.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. "Every contract ought to be construed according to the intention of the parties; and, in the present case, the Defendant had only covenanted to keep the premisses in repair &c. against ordinary accidents, and not against a case, which he could by no possibility prevent."

    Facts. On March 1, 1773, the Plaintiff and Martha Green (now deceased) leased Sugar House, to the lessee, John William Hoffman (the "lessee").  The lessee covenanted for "for himself, his executors, administrators, and assigns, to keep the demised premisses in good repair, and to deliver them up to the Plaintiff, at the end of the term, in such good repair."  The lessee assigned the lease to the Defendant who began living on the premises.  The Plaintiff alleges that the Defendant failed to make certain rent payments and "that the roof, window-shutters, floors [  ]. of the Sugar house were in decay, destroyed [  ]"  The Defendant alleged that the British army took possession of the premises and "committed the waste and destruction."

    Issue. Does the fact that the British army took over the premises and caused the waste and destruction shield the lessee and the Defendant from liability?

    Held. Yes. The court first observed "if a house be destroyed by lightning, floods, tempests, or enemies, without any concurrence of the lessee, or possibility of his preventing the same, this is no waste in the lessee: For, it is not done by the lessee's negligence, or any wilful act of his; and he cannot be charged with using it improperly, and it would thus have perished, even in the reversioner's possession."  Second, it is agreed that "where the law creates a duty or charge, and the party is disabled to perform it without any default in him, and hath no remedy over, there he shall be excused."  The court concluded "[e]very contract ought to be construed according to the intention of the parties; and, in the present case, the Defendant had only covenanted to keep the premisses in repair [    ] against ordinary accidents, and not against a case, which he could by no possibility prevent."  If the parties had addressed this issue when they entered their agreement, the court hypothesized that they would have agreed the Defendant would not have been liable.

    Discussion. This case demonstrates one way in which an individual will not be held to their obligation under a contract.  Specifically, where like here "[n]either party has been guilty of any default; the injury has been done by a common enemy, whom both together could not possibly resist or prevent, and the premisses would have been thus damnified in the possession of the Plaintiff himself" the Defendant should not be liable.


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