Gray v. Gardner | 17 Mass 188 | March 01, 1821 | Brett Johnson


This is the old version of the H2O platform and is now read-only. This means you can view content but cannot create content. You can access the new platform at Thank you.

Gray v. Gardner

Original Creator: Charles Fried Current Version: Brett Johnson
17 Mass. 188 (1821)


Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
March Term, 1821.

[188] A promise was to pay a sum of money, on condition that, if a certain quantity of oil should arrive at certain ports, within two fixed days, both inclusive, the promise should be void: in an action upon this promise it was holden that the burden was on the defendants to prove the arrival of the oil; and that to constitute such arrival, the vessel must be moored within the time stipulated.


ASSUMPSIT on a written promise to pay the plaintiff 5198 dollars, 87 cents, with the following condition annexed, viz.,“on the condition that if a greater quantity of sperm oil should arrive in whaling vessels at Nantucket and New Bedford, on or between the first day of April and the first day of October of the present year, both inclusive, than arrived at said places, in whaling vessels, on or within the same term of time the last year, then this obligation to be void.” Dated April 14, 1819.


The consideration of the promise was a quantity of oil, sold by the plaintiff to the defendants. On the same day another note unconditional had been given by the defendants, for the value of the oil, estimated at sixty cents per gallon; and the note in suit was given to secure the residue of the price, estimated at eighty-five cents, to depend on the contingency mentioned in the said condition.


At the trial before the chief justice, the case depended upon the question whether a certain vessel, called the Lady Adams, with a cargo of oil, arrived at Nantucket on the first day of October, 1819, about which fact the evidence was contradictory. The judge ruled that the burden of proving the arrival within the time was on the defendants; and further that, although the vessel might have, within the time, gotten within the space which might be called Nantucket Roads, yet it was necessary that she should have come to anchor, or have been moored, somewhere within that space before the hour of twelve following the first day of October, in order to have arrived, within the meaning of the contract.


The opinion of the chief justice on both these points was objected to by the defendants, and the questions were saved. If it was wrong on either point, a new trial was to be had; otherwise judgment was to be rendered on the verdict, which was found for the plaintiff.


[189] Whitman, for the defendants. As the evidence at the trial was contradictory, the question on whom the burden of proof rested, became important. We hold that it was on the plaintiff. This was a condition precedent. Until it should happen, the promise did not take effect. On the occurrence of a certain contingent event, the promise was to be binding, and not otherwise. To entitle himself to enforce the promise, the plaintiff must show that the contingent event has actually occurred.


On the other point saved at the trial, the defendants insist that it was not required by the terms of this contract that the vessel should be moored. It is not denied that such would be the construction of a policy of insurance containing the same expression. But every contract is to be taken according to the intention of the parties to it, if such intention be legal, and capable of execution. The contemplation of parties to a policy of insurance is, that the vessel shall be safe before she shall be said to have arrived. So it is in some other maritime contracts. But in that now in question, nothing was in the minds of the parties, but that the fact of the arrival of so much oil should be known within the time limited. The subject matter in one case is safety, in the other it is information only. In this case the vessel would be said to have arrived, in common understanding, and according to the meaning of the parties[1].


F. C. Gray, for the plaintiff.




The very words of the contract show that there was a promise to pay, which was to be defeated by the happening of an event, viz., the arrival of a certain quantity of oil, at the specified places, in a given time. It is like a bond with a condition; if the obligor would avoid the bond, he must show performance of the condition. The defendants, in this case, promise to pay a certain sum of money, on condition that the promise shall be void on the happening of an event. It is plain that the burden of proof is upon them; and if they fail to show that the event has happened, the promise remains good.


The other point is equally clear for the plaintiff. Oil [190] is to arrive at a given place before twelve o'clock at night. A vessel with oil heaves in sight, but she does not come to anchor before the hour is gone. In no sense can the oil be said to have arrived. The vessel is coming until she drops anchor, or is moored. She may sink, or take fire, and never arrive, however near she may be to her port. It is so in contracts of insurance; and the same reason applies to a case of this sort. Both parties put themselves upon a nice point in this contract; it was a kind of wager as to the quantity of oil which should arrive at the ports mentioned, before a certain period. They must be held strictly to their contract, there being no equity to interfere with the terms of it.


Judgment on the verdict.


[1] Vide 6 Mass. Rep. 313, Bill & Al. vs. Mason.


Annotated Case Information

Leitura Garamond Futura Verdana Proxima Nova Dagny Web
small medium large extra-large