CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.
It is conceded that the contracts set out in the finding of facts were four of ten simultaneous contracts, for one hundred bales each, covering the furnishing of one thousand bales of hops during a period of five years, of which six hundred bales had been delivered and paid for. If the transaction could be treated as amounting to a single contract for one thousand bales, the breach alleged would have occurred while the contract was in the course of performance; but plaintiffs' declaration or statement of demand averred the execution of the four contracts, "two for the purchase and sale of Pacific Coast hops of the crop of 1896, and two for the purchase and sale of Pacific Coast hops of the crop of 1897," set them out in extenso, and claimed recovery for breach thereof, and in this view of the case, while as to the first of the four contracts, the time to commence performance had arrived, and the October shipment had been tendered and refused, the breach as to the other three contracts was the refusal to perform before the time for performance had arrived.
The first contract falls within the rule that a contract may be broken by the renunciation of liability under it in the course of performance and suit may be immediately instituted. But the other three contracts involve the question whether, where the contract is renounced before performance is due, and the renunciation goes to the whole contract, and is absolute and unequivocal, the injured party may treat the breach as complete and bring his action at once. Defendant repudiated all
liability for hops of the crop of 1896 and of the crop of 1897, and notified plaintiffs that he should make (according to a letter of his attorney in the record that he had made) arrangements to purchase his stock of other parties, whereupon plaintiffs brought suit. The question is, therefore, presented, in respect of the three contracts, whether plaintiffs were entitled to sue at once or were obliged to wait until the time came for the first month's delivery under each of them.
It is not disputed that if one party to a contract has destroyed the subject-matter, or disabled himself so as to make performance impossible, his conduct is equivalent to a breach of the contract although the time for performance has not arrived; and also that if a contract provides for a series of acts, and actual default is made in the performance of one of them, accompanied by a refusal to perform the rest, the other party need not perform, but may treat the refusal as a breach of the entire contract, and recover accordingly.
And the doctrine that there may be an anticipatory breach of an executory contract by an absolute refusal to perform it, has become the settled law of England as applied to contracts for services, for marriage, and for the manufacture or sale of goods. The cases are extensively commented on in the notes to Cutter v. Powell, 2 Smith's Leading Cases, 1212, 1220, 9th edition by Richard Henn Collins and Arbuthnot. Some of these, though quite familiar, may well be referred to.
In Hochster v. De la Tour, 2 El. & Bl. 678, plaintiff, in April, 1852, had agreed to serve defendant, and defendant had undertaken to employ plaintiff, as courier, for three months from June first, on certain terms. On the eleventh of May, defendant wrote plaintiff that he had changed his mind, and declined to avail himself of plaintiff's services. Thereupon, and on May twenty-second, plaintiff brought an action at law for breach of contract in that defendant, before the said first of June, though plaintiff was always ready and willing to perform, refused to engage plaintiff or perform his promise, and then wrongfully exonerated plaintiff from the performance of the agreement, to his damage. And it was ruled that as there could be a breach of contract before the time fixed for performance, a positive and
absolute refusal to carry out the contract prior to the date of actual default amounted to such a breach.
In the course of the argument, Mr. Justice Crompton observed: "When a party announces his intention not to fulfill the contract, the other side may take him at his word and rescind the contract. The word 'rescind' implies that both parties have agreed that the contract shall be at an end as if it had never been. But I am inclined to think that the party may also say: 'Since you have announced that you will not go on with the contract, I will consent that it shall be at an end from this time; but I will hold you liable for the damage I have sustained; and I will proceed to make that damage as little as possible by making the best use I can of my liberty.'"
In delivering the opinion of the court, (Campbell, C.J., Coleridge, Erle and Crompton, JJ.), Lord Campbell, after pointing out that at common law there were numerous cases in which an anticipatory act, such as an act rendering the contract impossible of performance, or disabling the party from performing it, would constitute a breach giving an immediate right of action, laid it down that a positive and unqualified refusal by one party to carry out the contract should be treated as belonging to the same category as such anticipatory acts, and said, p. 690:
"But it is surely much more rational, and more for the benefit of both parties, that, after the renunciation of the agreement by the defendant, the plaintiff should be at liberty to consider himself absolved from any future performance of it, retaining his right to sue for any damage he has suffered from the breach of it. Thus, instead of remaining idle and laying out money in preparations which must be useless, he is at liberty to seek service under another employer, which would go in mitigation of the damages to which he would otherwise be entitled for a breach of the contract. It seems strange that the defendant, after renouncing the contract, and absolutely declaring that he will never act under it, should be permitted to object that faith is given to his assertion, and that an opportunity is not left to him of changing his mind. If the plaintiff is barred of any remedy by entering into an engagement inconsistent with starting as a courier with the defendant on the 1st of June, he is
prejudiced by putting faith in the defendant's assertion; and it would be more consonant with principle, if the defendant were precluded from saying that he had not broken the contract when he declared that he entirely renounced it.Suppose that the defendant, at the time of his renunciation, had embarked on a voyage for Australia, so as to render it physically impossible for him to employ the plaintiff as a courier on the continent of Europe in the months of June, July and August, 1852; according to decided cases, the action might have been brought before the 1st of June; but the renunciation may have been founded on other facts, to be given in evidence, which would equally have rendered the defendant's performance of the contract impossible. The man who wrongfully renounces a contract into which he has deliberately entered cannot justly complain if he is immediately sued for a compensation in damages by the man whom he has injured; and it seems reasonable to allow an option to the injured party, either to sue immediately, or to wait till the time when the act was to be done, still holding it as prospectively binding for the exercise of this option, which may be advantageous to the innocent party, and cannot be prejudicial to the wrongdoer. An argument against the action before the 1st of June is urged from the difficulty of calculating the damages: but this argument is equally strong against an action before the 1st of September, when the three months would expire. In either case, the jury in assessing the damages would be justified in looking to all that had happened, or was likely to happen, to increase or mitigate the loss of the plaintiff down to the day of trial. We do not find any decision contrary to the view we are taking of this case."
In Frost v. Knight, L.R. 7 Ex. 111, defendant had promised to marry plaintiff so soon as his (defendant's) father should die. While his father was yet alive he absolutely refused to marry plaintiff, and it was held in the Exchequer Chamber, overruling the decision of the Court of Exchequer, L.R. 5 Ex. 322, that for this breach an action was well brought during the father's lifetime. Cockburn, C.J., said: "The law with reference to a contract to be performed at a future time, where the party bound to performance announces prior to the time his intention
not to perform it, as established by the cases of Hochster v. De la Tour, 2 E. & B. 678, and the Danube & Black Sea Company v. Xenos, 13 C.B. (N.S.) 825, on the one hand, and Avery v. Bowden, 5 E. & B. 714, Reid v. Hoskins, 6 E. & B. 953, and Barwick v. Buba, 2 C.B. (N.S.) 563, on the other, may be thus stated. The promisee, if he pleases, may treat the notice of intention as inoperative, and await the time when the contract is to be executed, and then hold the other party responsible for all the consequences of nonperformance; but in that case he keeps the contract alive for the benefit of the other party as well as his own; he remains subject to all his own obligations and liabilities under it, and enables the other party not only to complete the contract, if so advised, notwithstanding his previous repudiation of it, but also to take advantage of any supervening circumstance which would justify him in declining to complete it. On the other hand, the promisee may, if he thinks proper, treat the repudiation of the other party as a wrongful putting an end to the contract, and may at once bring his ...