Justus R. Fortune vs. City of Tallahassee (1850)

This series highlights antebellum cases from the files of the Florida Supreme Court and its predecessor, the Florida Territorial Court of Appeals.

In 1850, the Florida Supreme Court considered the case City of Tallahassee v. Justus R. Fortune. The case came to the state’s highest court on appeal from Leon County. It centered on the responsibility of an incorporated body, in this case the City of Tallahassee, for maintaining a public road within its boundaries.

Page from Florida Supreme Court case Fortune v. City of Tallahassee (1850)

Justus R. Fortune was a resident of Tallahassee. According to the case file, he operated a tin shop along a city-maintained road and owned at least one horse. On October 3, 1848, Fortune lent his horse to George W. Hutchins, who borrowed the animal for an unspecified purpose.

When Hutchins finished his business and returned the horse, he hitched it to a post near Fortune’s tin shop in the customary fashion. At some point, the horse broke loose from the hitching post and escaped. A thorough search of the surrounding area failed to recover the animal.

The next day, Fortune discovered the horse, badly injured, at the bottom of a ditch that crossed the city road adjacent to his property. The horse later died. He blamed the City of Tallahassee for failing to maintain the regularly-traveled public thoroughfare, as evidenced by the “nuisance” ditch, which had resulted in the death of his horse. Fortune sought to recover $125 from the city as compensation for his loss.

Fortune’s case against the city rested on language contained within Tallahassee’s Act of Incorporation. According to the Act, the city had both the power and the responsibility to “prevent and remove nuisances” within its corporate limits. In this case, the section of road in question existed firmly within city limits, and therefore, Tallahassee officials had the responsibility to provide for its maintenance.

Fortune’s legal representation cited various U.S. court cases from other states and English Common Law as precedent for upholding the principal that the City of Tallahassee bore responsibility for maintaining the road and answering for accidents such as that which befell Fortune’s horse. The court agreed: “…that the City of Tallahassee was guilty of a nonfeasance in permitting the nuisance mentioned…to remain…”

The only brief point of contention was whether Fortune had taken all necessary and deliberate care to protect his property. Could he be to blame for not better securing his horse? Whether Hutchins could be charged with negligence did not become an issue.

The court found that: “…if a person should go headlong with his beast upon a nuisance, which (with ordinary care) he might have avoided, he ought not to have damages for his loss in consequence of his own recklessness.” The court determined that citizens daily hitched their horses and other animals throughout the town along public roads. Sometimes these animals escaped. But, these escapes were certainly accidental occurrences, instead of widespread negligence.

This case established important precedent in Florida law, following English Common Law and decisions made by courts in other states. Overtime, the responsibility (and liability) of incorporated settlements to maintain public property within their boundaries extended far beyond roads to include all types of infrastructure, and even persons employed by cities and towns on official business. Cases like Fortune form the legal basis for the rights of citizens to make cities and towns responsible for maintaining public works and other manifestations of taxpayer-funded infrastructure within corporate limits.

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