Simpson v. United States , 172 U.S. 372 ( 1899 )

  • 172 U.S. 372 (1899)


    No. 51.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued October 19, 20, 1898.
    Decided January 3, 1899.

    *378 *379 Mr. James H. Hayden for appellants. Mr. Joseph K. McCammon was on his brief.

    Mr. George Hines Gorman for appellees. Mr. Assistant Attorney General Pradt was on his brief.

    MR. JUSTICE WHITE, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

    Considering the facts above stated, it is at once apparent that the claim against the United States can only be allowed upon the theory that it is sustained by the written contract, since if it be not thereby sanctioned it is devoid of legal foundation. The rule by which parties to a written contract are bound by its terms, and which holds that they cannot be heard to vary by parol its express and unambiguous stipulations, or impair the obligations which the contract engenders by reference to the negotiations which preceded the making of the contract, or by urging that the pecuniary result which the contract has produced has not come up to the expectations of one or both of the parties, is too elementary to require anything but statement. The principle was clearly announced in Brawley v. United States, 96 U.S. 168, 173, where it was said:

    "All this is irrelevant matter. The written contract merged all previous negotiations, and is presumed, in law, to express the final understanding of the parties. If the contract did not express the true agreement, it was the claimant's folly to have signed it. The court cannot be governed by any such outside considerations. Previous and contemporary transactions and facts may be very properly taken into consideration to ascertain the subject-matter of a contract, and the sense in which the parties may have used particular terms, but not to alter or modify the plain language which they have used."

    Before measuring the claim by the contract, it is essential to clearly define the exact predicate upon which the demand necessarily rests. Reducing all the contentions of the claimant *380 to their ultimate conception, they amount simply to the proposition that the United States by the written contract guaranteed the nature of the soil under the site of the proposed dock, and assumed the entire burden which might arise in case it should be ascertained, during the progress of constructing the dock, that the soil under the selected site differed to the detriment of the contractors from that delineated upon the profile plan which had been made by an officer of the United States. Considering the contract itself, it is clear that there is nothing in its terms which supports, even by remote implication, the premise upon which the claimants must rest their hope of recovery. The contract imposed upon the contractors the obligation to construct the dock according to the specifications within a designated time for an agreed price upon a site to be selected by the United States. We look in vain for any statement or agreement or even intimation that any warranty, express or implied, in favor of the contractors was entered into concerning the character of the underlying soil. The only word which it is claimed supports the contention that a warranty was undertaken by the United States as to the condition of the soil is the statement, found in the opening portions of the specifications, that the dock was to be built in the navy yard upon a site which was "available," and great stress was laid in the argument at bar upon this word. But the word "available" intrinsically has no such meaning as that sought to be given it. It certainly cannot be said that the site selected for the dock was not available for the purpose, since one has been actually erected thereon. It is conceded in argument that the word "available" has not naturally the meaning which must be attributed to it in order to support the contention that there was a warranty as to the condition of the soil. But it is said the word should be construed as having such signification, because bidders were referred to the commandants of the navy yards for information as to the sites of the docks, and the plan showing the result of the examination made upon a portion of the yard was submitted to them. In other words, whilst admitting the rule that the contract is the law of the case, and *381 that the rights and obligations of the parties are to be alone determined from its context, the argument invokes a departure from that rule, and asks that the contract be so construed as to create a right in favor of one of the parties in conflict with the natural significance of the language of the contract, because of antecedent negotiations which took place between the parties.

    Aside from the contradiction which this contention involves, the meaning now claimed for the word "available" cannot be adopted without departing from the intention of the parties as manifested by the terms of the contract, and the documents forming part of it, and such meaning cannot moreover be sanctioned without doing violence to the context of the contract. The advertisement for bids was made in April, 1887. The bid and specifications which accompanied it were drawn by the firm, and were submitted in June, 1887. The advertisement to which they were an answer called for a full and explicit statement of what was proposed to be done by the contractors and what were the requirements upon which they expected to rely. The contractors were experienced and competent dock builders. If it had been their intention to only undertake to build the dock for the price stipulated, provided a guarantee was afforded them by the United States that the soil upon which the dock was to be constructed was to be of a particular nature conforming to a plan then existing, a purpose so important, so vital, would necessarily have found direct and positive expression in the bid and specifications, and would not have been left to be evolved by a forced and latitudinarian construction of the word "available," used only in the nature of a recital in the specifications and not in the contract. The fact that the bidders knew that a test of the soil in the yard had been made, and drew the contract providing that the dock should be located on a site to be designated by the United States without any express stipulation that there was a warranty in their favor that the ground selected should be of a defined character, precludes the conception that the terms of the contract imposed such obligation on the Government in the absence of a full and clear expression *382 to that effect, or at least an unavoidable implication. This is made clearer by other portions of the contract and specifications.

    The seventh paragraph of the contract contained a stipulation that "the construction of the said dry dock and its accessories and appurtenances herein contracted for shall conform in all respects to and with the plans and specifications aforesaid." Now, the recital in the specifications as to an "available" site is only contained in the opening clause thereof, and naturally suggests only that it relates solely to some place in the yard which should be selected in the discretion of the Government suitable for the erection of a dry dock. So also in the specifications as to the materials to be furnished, which follow the recital as to the location of the dock, there is not contained a word implying that a particular piece of ground in the navy yard, having soil of a specially stable character, was to be the site on which the dock was to be placed. The contrary, however, is clearly implied from the provisions as to foundation and other piling which were to be used in supporting and enclosing the structure. The foundation, brace and cross-cap piles, it was stipulated, were to be "of such length as may be required for the purpose, and well driven to a firm bearing," while it was stipulated that the sheet piling should be "driven close and to such depth as may be found necessary to make good work;" and these provisions were followed by a clause reciting that "should the character of the bottom be found such as to warrant a modification of the pile system of floor construction, a concrete bed of not less than six feet in thickness may be substituted for the foundation piles."

    Light is thrown upon the plain meaning of the contract by the conduct of the parties in the execution of the work. It is not pretended that, when the character of the subsoil was discovered, the slightest claim was preferred that this fact gave rise to an extra allowance. The fact is that the contractors proceeded with the work, obtained delay for its completion, made their final settlements and received their last payment without ever asserting that any of the rights which they now claim were vested in them. Without deciding that such conduct *383 would be decisive if the claim was supported by the contract, it is nevertheless clear that it affords a just means of adding forceful significance to the unambiguous letter of the contract and the self-evident intention of the parties in entering into it.

    Judgment affirmed.