Newsome v. Western Union Telegraph Co.

153 N.C. 153, 69 S.E. 10 (1910)

Quick Summary

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T.J. Newsome (plaintiff) sued Western Union Telegraph Company (defendant) after a telegraph error resulted in a failure to deliver whisky to his raft hands, which he claimed led to a loss of business opportunity. The dispute centered around whether Western Union should compensate Newsome for lost profits due to their error.

The North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that Newsome could only recover nominal damages, as his claim for lost profits was found to be too speculative and not a direct result of Western Union’s negligence.

Facts of the Case

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T.J. Newsome (plaintiff) required a timely delivery of four gallons of whisky for his raft hands working in a dry county, where the sale of alcohol was prohibited. He sent a telegraph order through Western Union Telegraph Company (defendant) to expedite this delivery.

The whisky was crucial for Newsome as he claimed his workers had agreed to construct rafts for transporting his timber and rosin only under the condition that they be provided with whisky.

Unfortunately, the telegraph operator made an error in transcribing Newsome’s signature, which resulted in the name ‘T.J. Sessons’ being sent instead of ‘T.J. Newsome.’ Consequently, the whisky never arrived, leading to Newsome’s crew refusing to work and the loss of a favorable river flow for Newsome’s business operations.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Newsome filed a lawsuit against Western Union for lost profits due to the error in the telegram transmission.
  2. The trial court deemed the damages too speculative and refused to award them.
  3. Newsome appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


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Whether Western Union Telegraph Company should be held liable for the lost profits claimed by Newsome as a result of the telegraph operator’s error.

Rule of Law

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A telegraph company, as a public agency, is required to transmit messages and is not liable for speculative damages beyond the direct and natural consequences of its negligence.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The court acknowledged that Western Union, as a public service corporation, was obligated to transmit Newsome’s message at a regulated price and could not be held liable for speculative and remote damages based on the sender’s intentions or needs. The court emphasized that damages must be certain in nature and directly related to the cause of negligence.

The potential outcomes of receiving the whisky, such as completing the raft and successfully transporting goods, were deemed too uncertain and speculative to warrant compensation.

Furthermore, the court highlighted the irony of expecting significant economic benefits from an illegal substance in a dry county, suggesting that relying on whiskey to ensure the construction and successful navigation of a raft was not a reasonable expectation.

Thus, only nominal damages were awarded to Newsome, reflecting the court’s stance that the connection between the telegraph error and the claimed losses was too tenuous.


Conclusion Icon

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Newsome was entitled only to nominal damages due to the speculative nature of his claim for lost profits.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Telegraph companies are not liable for speculative damages that are not the direct and natural result of their negligence.
  2. Claims for damages must be based on losses that are certain and directly attributable to the wrongful act.
  3. Nominal damages may be awarded when actual damages are deemed too speculative.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes speculative damages in contract law?

In contract law, speculative damages refer to compensation for losses that are not certain and cannot be determined with reasonable accuracy. They are hypothetical and not recoverable because they depend on events that may or may not have occurred if the breach hadn’t happened.

  • For example: A band fails to show up for a concert, and the concert organizer seeks damages for the loss of an unknown number of potential attendees who might have purchased merchandise. This would be speculative, as there is no precise way to calculate those potential sales.

How does the rule of remoteness limit liability for damages?

The rule of remoteness in tort law limits a defendant’s liability to damage which a reasonable person would have foreseen as a likely result of their negligence at the time the act was committed. It places a boundary on how far-reaching damages claims can be justified.

  • For example: If a window cleaner accidentally breaks a window, causing some water damage, they could be liable for the repair costs but not for a business’s claim of lost profits due to closing for repairs, which could be seen as too remote a consequence.

Why are nominal damages awarded in lieu of actual damages?

Nominal damages are awarded by courts when a legal wrong has occurred, but the plaintiff has not suffered quantifiable economic harm or when the harm suffered is minimal or too speculative to quantify.

  • For example: If someone trespasses on another’s land without causing any actual damage or financial loss, the court might award nominal damages to acknowledge the violation of property rights but cannot justify substantial compensation.
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