260 U.S. 22

43 S.Ct. 9

67 L.Ed. 107


No. 3.

Argued Oct. 4, 1922.

Decided Oct. 23, 1922.

Mr. H. F. Stambaugh, of Pittsburgh, Pa., for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 23-29 intentionally omitted]

Mr. A. Leo Weil, of Pittsburgh, Pa., for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.


The plaintiff in error, the original plaintiff, owned a theatre building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a wall of which went to the edge of his line. Proceeding under a statute of Pennsylvania the defendant, owner of the adjoining land began to build a party wall, intending to incorporate the plaintiff's wall. The city authorities decided that the latter was not safe and ordered its removal, which was done by the contractor employed by the defendant. The plaintiff later brought this suit. The declaration did not set up that the entry upon the plaintiff's land was unlawful, but alleged wrongful delay in completing the wall and the use of improper methods. It claimed damages for the failure to restore the plaintiff's building to the equivalent of its former condition, and for the delay, which, it was alleged, caused the plaintiff to lose the rental for a theatrical season. At the trial the plaintiff asked for a ruling that the statute relating to party walls, if inter preted to exclude the recovery of damages without proof of negligence, was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. This was refused, the Court ruling that the defendant was not liable for damages necessarily resulting from the exercise of the right given by the statute to build a party wall upon the line, and, more specifically, was not liable for the removal of the plaintiff's old wall. There were further questions as to whether the work was done by an independent contractor and as to negligence, on which the jury brought in a verdict for the plaintiff for $25,000; but the Court of Common Pleas held that the party employed was an independent contractor and that the defendant was entitled to judgment non obstante veredicto. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment, holding among other things that the statute imposed no liability for damages necessarily caused by building such a party wall as it permitted, and that so construed, it did not encounter the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. 263 Pa. 158, 106 Atl. 238.


In the State Court the judgment was justified by reference to the power of the State to impose burdens upon property or to cut down its value in various ways without compensation, as a branch of what is called the police power. The exercise of this has been held warranted in some cases by what we may call the average reciprocity of advantage, although the advantages may not be equal in the particular case. Wurts v. Hoagland, 114 U. S. 606, 5 Sup. Ct. 1086, 29 L. Ed. 229; Fallbrook Irrigation District v. Bradley, 164 U. S. 112, 17 Sup. Ct. 56, 41 L. Ed. 369; Noble State Bank v. Haskell, 219 U. S. 104, 111, 31 Sup. Ct. 186, 55 L. Ed. 112, 32 L. R. A. (N. S.) 1062, Ann. Cas. 1912A, 487. The Supreme Court of the State adverted also to increased safety against fire and traced the origin to the great fire in London in 1666. It is unnecessary to decide upon the adequacy of these grounds. It is enough to refer to the fact also brought out and relied upon in the opinion below, that the custom of party walls was introduced by the first settlers in Philadelphia under William Penn and has prevailed in the State ever since. It is illustrated by statutes concerning Philadelphia going back to 1721, 1 Dallas, Laws of Pennsylvania, 152; and by an Act of 1794 for Pittsburgh, 3 Dallas, Laws, 588, 591, referring to the Act incorporating the borough of Reading, 2 Dallas, Laws, 124, 129.


The Fourteenth Amendment, itself a historical product, did not destroy history for the States and substitute mechanical compartments of law all exactly alike. If a thing has been practiced for two hundred years by common consent, it will need a strong case for the Fourteenth Amendment to affect it, as is well illustrated by Ownbey v. Morgan, 256 U. S. 94, 104, 112, 41 Sup. Ct. 433, 65 L. Ed. 837, 17 A. L. R. 873. See Louisville & Nashville R. R. Co. v. Barber Asphalt Co., 197 U. S. 430, 434, 25 Sup. Ct. 466, 49 L. Ed. 819. Such words as 'right' are a constant solicitation to fallacy. We say a man has a right to the land that he has bought and that to subject a strip six inches or a foot wide to liability to use for a party wall therefore takes his right to that extent. It might be so and we might be driven to the economic and social considerations that we have mentioned if the law were an innovation, now heard of for the first time. But if, from what we may call time immemorial, it has been the understanding that the burden exists, the land owner does not have the right to that part of his land except as so qualified and the statute that embodies that understanding does not need to invoke the police power.


Of course a case could be imagined where the modest mutualities of simple townspeople might become something very different when extended to buildings like those of modern New York. There was a suggestion of such a difference in this case. But although the foundations spread wide, the wall above the surface of the ground was only thirteen inches thick, or six and a half on the plaintiff's land, and as the damage complained of was a necessary incident to any such building, the question how far the liability might be extended does not arise. It follows, as stated by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania that 'when either lot holder builds upon his own property up to the division line, he does so with the knowledge that, in case of the erection of a party wall, that part of his building which encroaches upon the portion of the land subject to the easement will have to come down, if not suitable for incorporation into the new wall.' In a case involving local history as this does we should be slow to overrule the decision of Courts steeped in the local tradition even if we saw reasons for doubting it, which in this case we do not.


Judgment affirmed.

The following state regulations pages link to this page.