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LeRoy Fibre Co. v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Ry

    Brief Fact Summary. Sparks from Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Ry’s (Defendant’s) train ignited Plaintiff’s stack of straw. The jury found that Defendant negligently operated its train by allowing it to emit large quantities of sparks and live cinders. However, the jury found Plaintiff guilty of contributory negligence by placing the exposed stacks within 100 feet of a railroad track.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The rights of one man in the use of his property cannot be limited by the wrongs of another.

    Facts. Plaintiff stored about 700 tons of straw in 230 stacks on his land. The stacks were lined up in two rows. Defendant’s train was 70 from the first row and 85 feet from the second row. One day a high wind carried sparks from Defendant’s train to the stack located 85 feet away. A fire resulted and consumed all the stacks. Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligence. The jury found that Defendant negligently operated its train by allowing it to emit large quantities of sparks and live cinders. They also found that Defendant’s negligence was the cause of Plaintiff’s harm. However, the jury found Plaintiff guilty of contributory negligence by placing the exposed stacks within 100 feet of a railroad track. Plaintiff appealed. Plaintiff argued that there was no issue of contributory negligence to give to the jury at all.

    Issue. Does Plaintiff’s act of placing stacks of straw on his land close to Defendant’s railroad constitute contributory negligence?

    Held. No. Judgment reversed.
    * Plaintiff’s use of the land was a proper use. It did not interfere with nor embarrass the rightful operation of the railroad.
    * Plaintiff is not restricted to make a lawful use of his property. Plaintiff’s conduct does not amount to contributory negligence because it would subject Plaintiff to the servitude of the wrongful use of property by another. The district court’s ruling casts upon Plaintiff the duty to use his own property so that it may not be injured by the wrongs of another.
    * In essence, Defendant is granted immunity from their wrongful acts. The court does not think that to be logical when Plaintiff was using his land lawfully. The rights of one man in the use of his property cannot be limited by the wrongs of another.
    Concurrence. (Justice Holmes) A very important element in determining the right to recover is whether Plaintiff’s flax was so near to the track as to be in danger from even a prudently managed engine. No one would deem it prudent to stack flax within five feet of the engines or imprudent to it at a distance of half a mile. Courts should let the jury decide whether seventy feet is too near. This view depends on differences of degree.

    Discussion. Plaintiff does not have to guard against another’s wrongful use of their land. Plaintiff need only make sure that he is using his land properly. The affirmative defense of contributory negligence is not applicable against a party making a lawful and reasonable use of their land.


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