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Yearsley v. W. A. Ross Constr. Co.

Supreme Court of the United States

January 3, 4, 1940, Argued ; January 29, 1940, Decided

No. 156


 [*19]   [**414]   [***556]  MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this action, brought in the state court of Nebraska and removed to the federal court, petitioners sought to recover damages upon the ground that the respondent company had built dikes in the Missouri River and, using large boats with paddles and pumps to produce artificial erosion, had washed away a part of petitioners' land. Respondent alleged in defense that the work was done pursuant to a contract with the United States Government, and under the direction of the Secretary [****3]  of War and the supervision of the Chief of Engineers of the United States, for the purpose of improving the navigation of the Missouri River, as authorized by an Act of Congress. Petitioners in reply alleged that the contract did not contemplate the taking of their land without just  [*20]  compensation and that the acts of the contractor resulted in the destruction of petitioners' property in violation of their rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.

Petitioners had judgment which the Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 103 F.2d 589. Certiorari was granted because of alleged conflict with applicable decisions of this Court. 308 U.S. 538. The Government has been permitted to appear as amicus curiae.

The Circuit Court of Appeals found that the evidence established "that two dikes built in the river above, and one dike built opposite, their (petitioners') land had diverted the  [***557]  channel or the current of the river from the Iowa shore to the Nebraska shore" and that as a result the "accretion land" of petitioners "to the extent of perhaps 95 acres had been eroded and carried away." There was evidence tending to show [****4]  that in extending the dike opposite petitioners' land, the contractor, "apparently to keep open an adequate channel for navigation between the end of the dike and the shore," had accelerated the erosion "by using the paddle wheels of its steamboats to increase the action of the current." But there was no evidence, as the Court of Appeals said, that this "paddle washing" had done "anything more than hasten the inevitable." The Court of Appeals also found it to be undisputed "that the work which the contractor had done in the river bed was all authorized and directed by the Government of the United States for the purpose of improving the navigation of this navigable river." It is also conceded that the work thus authorized and directed by the governmental officers was performed pursuant to the Act of Congress of January 21, 1927, 44 Stat. 1010, 1013.

In that view, it is clear that ] if this authority to carry out the project was validly conferred, [****5]  that is, if what was done was within the constitutional power of Congress,  [*21]  there is no liability on the part of the contractor for executing its will. See Murray's Lessee v. Hoboken Land & Improvement Co., 18 How. 272, 283;Lamar v. Browne, 92 U.S. 187, 199;The Paquete Habana, 189 U.S. 453, 465.] Where an agent or officer of the Government purporting to act on its behalf has been held to be liable for his conduct causing injury to another, the ground of liability has been found to be either that he exceeded his authority or that it was not validly conferred. Philadelphia Company v. Stimson, 223 U.S. 605, 619, 620. See United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 220, 221; Noble v. Union River Logging R. Co., 147 U.S. 165, 171, 172; Tindal v. Wesley, 167 U.S. 204, 222; Scranton v. Wheeler, 179 U.S. 141, 152; American School of Magnetic Healing v. McAnnulty, 187 U.S. 94, 108, 110.

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309 U.S. 18 *; 60 S. Ct. 413 **; 84 L. Ed. 554 ***; 1940 U.S. LEXIS 1065 ****



 CERTIORARI, 308 U.S. 538, to review the reversal of a judgment recovered by the present petitioners in an action against the respondent for damages to their riparian lands.

Disposition:  103 F.2d 589, affirmed.


river, contractor, petitioners', navigation, dike

Public Contracts Law, Governmental Immunities, Sovereign Immunity, Statutory Restrictions, Constitutional Law, Bill of Rights, Fundamental Rights, Eminent Domain & Takings, Environmental Law, Land Use & Zoning, Eminent Domain Proceedings, Governments, Courts, Courts of Claims, Civil Procedure, Special Proceedings, Eminent Domain Proceedings, General Overview