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Leroy Fibre Company v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway

    Brief Fact Summary. In a negligence action, Leroy Fibre Company (Plaintiff) claimed that Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway (Defendant) had destroyed his property and sought damages. A jury found for the Defendant. Plaintiff sought review.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. An owner of property who acts in a reasonable and prudent manner has a right to manage his property as he sees fit without being required to anticipate another’s negligence.

    Facts. Plaintiff owned land adjacent to Defendant’s railroad. In connection with Plaintiff’s business, he stacked flax on the property. He brought an action against the railroad, alleging that Defendant’s negligence caused sparks and colas emitted from the railway to ignite the flax and it was destroyed. The closest of the stacks was seventy-five feet from the railway. Defendant argued contributory negligence, claiming Plaintiff had stacked the flax too close to the railway.

    Issue. Did the Plaintiff’s action of stacking flax adjacent to the railway constitute evidence of negligence and should thus be submitted to a jury?

    Held. No. The court held that an owner of property who acts in a reasonable and prudent manner has a right to manage his property as he sees fit without being required to anticipate another’s negligence.
    Concurrence. Justice Holmes’ concurrence echoes the principle that it is unreasonable to expect one to act on the assumption that others will break the law. He stated that ” [a]s a general proposition people are entitled to assume that their neighbors will conform to the law; that a negligent tort is unlawful in as full a sense as a malicious one, and therefore that they are entitled to assume that their neighbors will not be negligent.”

    Discussion. The question presented in Leroy Fibre illustrates a common tension that arises with regard to liability that property law, with its emphasis on ownership rights, may conflict with negligence law, with its emphasis on safety.
    * The Leroy court begins with the premise that property rights have primacy when it states “[t]he owner has the same right to use his property adjacent to a railroad right of way for any lawful purpose for which it is adapted as he would have if there was no railroad there. The only limitation upon the use and enjoyment of his property is that he use it in such a manner as not to injure that of another.”
    * From there the court reasons that it would make little sense to conduct one’s affairs on the assumption that others will not act responsibly when it stated “[t]hat one’s uses of his property may be subject to the servitude of the wrongful use by another of his property seems an anomaly. It upsets the presumptions of law and takes from him the assumption and the freedom which comes from the assumption, that the other will obey the law, not violate it.” In applying this reasoning to the case before it, the court states, “[i]n locating it on his own premises even near the right of way he owes the railroad company no duty to anticipate or guard against injury to it from the negligence of the railroad company. Without the breach of some duty by the owner there can be no negligence on his part.”
    * Lastly, in the modern view, the Restatement defines contributory negligence as “conduct on the part of the plaintiff which falls below the standard of conduct to which he should conform for his own protection, and which is a legally contributing cause . . . in bringing about the plaintiff’s harm.” Restatement of Torts Section: 463. This concise definition would appear to be in harmony with the court’s reasoning in Leroy. It should be noted, however, that since tort law is primarily fact-based and negligence law provides for safety, judges conduct rulings on a case-by-case basis.


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