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UNITED STATES V. GIBBONS, 109 U. S. 200 (1883)

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Gibbons, 109 U.S. 200 (1883)

United States v. Gibbons

Argued October 23 1883

Decided November 12, 1883

109 U.S. 200


1. Where the language of a contract is susceptible of two meanings, the court will infer the intention of the parties and their relative rights and obligations from the circumstances attending the transaction.

2. The parties contracted for the rebuilding of a shop at the Norfolk Navy Yard, which had been destroyed by fire. The specifications provided that

"the foundation and the brick walls now standing that were uninjured by the fire will remain and will be carried up to the height designated in the plan by new work."

After taking down so much of the old wall as was supposed to be injured, the government officers directed parties to examine the then condition of the walls before bidding on the specifications. Defendant in error did so, then bid, and his bid was accepted. Held that the United States, through its officers, was bound to point out to bidders the parts of the walls which were to enter into the new structure, and that this was done by the act of dismantling a portion and leaving the rest of the wall to stand.

3. Payments under the contract were to be made in installments and the balance when the work should be entirely completed. The contract also contemplated extra work. Held that the cause of action for such extra work arose on the entire completion of the work.

The principal question in this case relates to the proper construction of a building contract between the parties, entered into May 22, 1866, the United States acting by Joseph Smith, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, under the authority of the Navy Department, for the repair of the entrance buildings and carpenter shop at the Norfolk Navy Yard, which had been destroyed by fire in 1861 at the outbreak of the civil war.

Page 109 U. S. 201

The contract required the appellee to furnish at his own risk and expense, all the materials and work necessary for the repairs of the buildings, according to the plans and specifications annexed, and entrance buildings to be entirely completed and delivered within one hundred and twenty days, and the carpenter shop within thirty days, from the date of the contract. A gross sum was to be paid for the work on each, partial payments to be made during the progress of the work upon the certificate of the superintendent, and final payment when the work should be entirely completed, according to the plans and specifications, "and to the satisfaction of the party of the second part." It was declared in the contract that

"no extra charge for modifications will be allowed unless mutually agreed upon by the parties, and no changes or modifications mutually agreed upon by the parties to this contract shall in any way affect its validity."

The specifications for the entrance buildings contained the following clause, upon which the case turns:

"The foundations and the brick walls now standing that were injured by the fire will remain, and be carried up to the height designated in the plan by new work."

The contract was made in pursuance of proposals, invited by an advertisement, in which it was stated that

"persons desiring to bid must necessarily visit the yards and examine the present condition of the works, and can there see the plans and specifications to enable them to bid understandingly."

The findings of fact by the Court of Claims bearing on this point are as follows:

"III. At the outbreak of the late rebellion these buildings mentioned in the contract were burnt, but portions of the walls were left standing. Prior to the proposals for work an inspection of these fragmentary walls, so left standing, had been made by the officers of the government in charge of the works, and those portions of them deemed unfit to form a part of the permanent structure were taken down, and those parts which were considered uninjured and proper to be built upon were left

Page 109 U. S. 202

standing for that purpose. After the agents of the government had prepared the walls, retaining the portion which the civil engineer of the navy yard in charge of the work supposed might be used in the new structure, the chief of the bureau of yards and docks invited the examination of bidders by the advertisement annexed to the petition, and the claimant, by his agent, visited and saw the walls so standing. At the time the claimant, by his agent, so visited the yard he was shown the walls by a quarterman acting under the civil engineer of the yard. The claimant's agent asked if those walls were to stand. The quarterman replied that they were, so far as he knew, and that Mr. Williams, the master mason of the yard, and Mr. Worrall, the civil engineer of the yard, had said that they were to stand. (But it does not appear that the quarterman was authorized to make such representations to the claimant's agent.) And the civil engineer likewise represented to the claimant's agent that the portion of the walls then standing would remain and be used in the new work. After the claimant's agent had so visited the yard and been shown the walls the claimant made his bid."

"IV. After the claimant had begun work under his contract it was discovered that a portion of the walls still standing had been so injured by the fire as to be unfit for building a superstructure thereon. Commodore Hitchcock, commanding the naval station, thereupon ordered that the walls be further razed, and, pursuant to his orders, about one third of the portion then standing was taken down by the claimant before proceeding to build. The effect of this second razing was that the claimant had to substitute new brick work for that so removed, and the additional cost of construction thereby thrown upon him was the sum of $4,050, and for it he has received no remuneration additional to the price named or consideration expressed in the contract. It does not appear that at the time Commodore Hitchcock ordered the walls to be further razed the defendant's officers made any pretense or claim that the increased expense was to be borne by the claimant as work required by the contract; nor does it appear that the claimant made any objection to the taking down of the walls as ordered by Commodore Hitchcock."

The appellee claimed compensation beyond the contract price

Page 109 U. S. 203

for the additional cost of construction rendered necessary by rebuilding that portion of the walls torn down by order of Commodore Hitchcock. The United States contended that it was covered by the terms of his contract.

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