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Barnes v. District of Columbia, 91 U.S. 540 (1875)

Barnes v. District of Columbia

91 U.S. 540


1. A municipal corporation in the exercise of its duties is a department of the state. Its powers may be large or small; they may be increased or diminished from time to time at the pleasure of the state, or the state may itself directly exercise in any locality all the powers usually conferred upon such a corporation. Such changes do not alter its fundamental character.

2. The statement that a municipality acts only through its agents does not mean that it so acts through subordinate agents only. It may act through its mayor or its common council, its superintendent of streets, or its board of public works.

3. Whether the persons thus acting are appointed by the governor or president or are elected by the people does not affect the question whether they are or are not parts of the corporation and its agents. Nor is it important on that question from what source they receive their compensation.

4. The Act of Congress of Feb. 21, 1871, 16 Stat. 419, creates a "municipal corporation" called "The District of Columbia." It provides for the appointment of an executive officer called a governor, and for a legislative assembly. It creates a board of public works, which is invested with the entire control of the streets of the District, their regulation and repair; and is composed of the governor of the District and four other persons appointed by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to hold their offices for the term of four years unless sooner removed by the President. The board is empowered to disburse all moneys appropriated by Congress or the District or collected from propertyholders in pursuance of law, for the improvement of streets, avenues, &c., and is required to make a report to the legislative assembly of the District and to the governor, who is directed to lay the same before the President for transmission to Congress. Held that the board of public works is not an independent body acting for itself, but is a part of the municipal corporation, and that the District of Columbia is responsible to an individual who has suffered injury from the defective and negligent condition of its streets. Held further that a municipal corporation, holding a voluntary charter as a city or village, is responsible for its mere negligence in the care and management

Page 91 U. S. 541

of its streets. In this respect, there is a distinction between the liability of such a corporation and that of a quasi-corporation like a county, town, or district. Whether or not this distinction is founded on sound principle, it is too well settled to be disturbed.

This is an action to recover damages for a personal injury received by the plaintiff on the 14th of October, 1871, in consequence of the defective condition of one of the streets of the City of Washington. The accident occurred on K Street east, and arose from the construction of the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad through that street. The road was built by permission of the corporation, and authority was given to the company to change the grade of the streets according to a plan filed. In making this change, a deep pit or excavation was made, into which the plaintiff fell. The questions touching the plaintiff's injury, the defective condition of the street, and the negligence of those having it in charge were submitted to the jury, and the issue upon each of them was found in favor of the plaintiff. The verdict of the jury, by which they awarded to him the sum of three thousand five hundred dollars as damages, besides his costs, and the judgment thereon, were set aside at the general term of the Supreme Court of the District, and judgment was ordered in favor of the defendant. From this judgment the present writ of error was brought.

Page 91 U. S. 543

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