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decided: April 3, 1911.



Author: Holmes

[ 220 U.S. Page 324]

 MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a suit brought by the United States to recover the extra expense incurred to complete some dredging in Rhode Island, by reason of the failure of the defendants Perkins and O'Brien diligently and faithfully to prosecute the work. The complaint was dismissed by the Circuit Court in accordance with the decision of the Circuit Court of Appeals upon a previous trial, 159 Fed. Rep. 671;

[ 220 U.S. Page 32586]

     C.C.A. 539, and the judgment was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. 163 Fed. Rep. 1022; 89 C.C.A. 664.

Perkins and O'Brien made a contract with the United States to do the dredging required in improving Providence River and Narragansett Bay between certain points, to begin work on or before March 1, 1899, and to complete it on or before July 1, 1902. One term of the contract was that if they should fail to begin on time or should, "in the judgment of the engineer in charge, fail to prosecute faithfully and diligently the work in accordance with the specifications and requirements of this contract, then, in either case, the party of the first part, or his successor legally appointed, shall have power, with the sanction of the Chief of Engineers, to annul this contract by giving notice in writing to that effect, . . . and, upon the giving of such notice all money or reserved percentage due or to become due to the party or parties of the second part by reason of this contract shall be and become forfeited to the United States; and the party of the first part shall be thereupon authorized, if an immediate performance of the work or delivery of the materials be, in his opinion, required by the public exigency, to proceed to provide for the same by open purchase or contract, as prescribed in ยง 3709 of the Revised Statutes of the United States:" with a proviso that if the contractors should be prevented by violence of the elements from beginning or completing the work as agreed such additional time might be allowed them as in the judgment of the party of the first part should be just.

Toward the end of the contract, four paragraphs further on than the last, was the further agreement: "In case of failure on the part of the party of the second part to complete this contract as specified and agreed upon, that all sums due and percentage retained shall thereby be forfeited to the United States, and that the said United

[ 220 U.S. Page 326]

     States shall also have the right to recover any or all damages due to such failure in excess of the sums so forfeited, and also to recover from the party of the second part, as part of said damages, whatever sums may be expended by the party of the first part in completing the said contract, in excess of the price herein stipulated to be paid to the party of the second part for completing the same."

The work was begun but did not go on satisfactorily. On December 4, 1900, the major of engineers in charge wrote from Newport to the contractors and their surety, now represented by the other defendant, "that from present appearances it does not seem to be possible for the contractors to put on other dredges than the one now supposed to be at work," stating what had been done and what would have to be done before the time allowed expired, and that to do the work, it would need three dredges upon it continuously. The letter proceeded to give the authorized warning that "unless the contractors have on work by January 1st, 1901, a sufficient plant to dredge at least 100,000 cubic yards per month the contract will be annulled." On December 13 the contractors answered from New York, stating that they expected to make an arrangement to put on two more dredges within a few days. On December 29, 1900, the contractors telegraphed that their representative would call upon the major in charge on Tuesday morning, i.e., January 1. On December 31 he replied that the representative could accomplish nothing by coming, and on the same day wrote to the defendants informing them that the contract was annulled. The work afterwards was finished by other parties, at much increased cost. There was no substantial ground in the evidence to attribute the Government's course to anything but the fault of the contractors, which was very plain, and the only question is what liability they incurred.

[ 220 U.S. Page 327]

     The sole material express promise of the contractors was to complete the work by July 1, 1902. If the work was done at that date that promise was performed, no matter how irregularly or with what delays in the earlier months. Under its terms the United States was not concerned with the stages of performance, but only with the completed result. See Bacon v. Parker, 137 Massachusetts, 309, 311. Its interest in the result, however, made it reasonable to reserve the right to employ some one else if, when time enough had gone by to show what was likely to happen, it saw that it probably would not get what it bargained for from the present hands. But it would be a very severe construction of the contract, a contract, too, framed by the United States, to read the reservation of a right to annul, for what of a diligence not otherwise promised, as importing a promise to use such diligence as should satisfy the judgment of the engineer in charge. It is one thing to make the right to continue work under the contract depend upon his approval, another to make his dissatisfaction with progress conclusive of a breach. In this case it was admitted that there was time enough left to finish the work under the contract when the defendants were turned off. It would be a very harsh measure to pronounce the contract broken when but for the prohibition of the United States the defendants might have done the work in time. The right to terminate the employment of the defendants coupled with a provision for monthly payments based upon the amount of material removed, and therefore of course giving little pay for little work, is the protection expressly stipulated by the United States.

Again, the later paragraph that we have quoted, giving the right to recover expense of completing the work in excess of the original price, gives that right only "in case of failure . . . to complete this contract as specified ...

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