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Smyth Sales Inc. v. Petroleum Heat & Power Co.

June 3, 1942


Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the District of New Jersey; William F. Smith, Judge.

Author: Goodrich

Before MARIS, CLARK, and GOODRICH, Circuit Judges.

GOODRICH, Circuit Judge.

The complaint in this action contains two counts, one for fraud and deceit and the other for malicious interference with plaintiff's business.At the close of the plaintiff's testimony the learned trial judge dismissed the action as to both counts. Previously a clause making claim for exemplary damages had been stricken from the first count. The plaintiff appeals to this Court rom these rulings.

The Claim for Deceit

The plaintiff's evidence showed the following: In 1933 the parties to this action, agreed, by written contract, that the Smyth Sales Corporation, plaintiff's predecessor,*fn1 should sell, exclusively, the fuel oil of the Petroleum Heat and Power Co. Inc., in given territory. The contract further provided that it "fixes the rate of commissions to be paid on all fuel oil sold and delivered in the territory covered" and that it was "an exclusive agreement for the Dealer [Smyth] insofar as Essex County, New Jersey is concerned * * * ."

In 1935, the president of the plaintiff saw, in his territory, the defendant's oil trucks, bearing the name of "Electrol", a rival company. On inquiry of the defendant's New Jersey manager, he was told that the trucks were hauling the oil of "Electrol" for a stipulated charge. Further inquiry did not elicit any information that "Electrol" was selling Petroleum's fuel oil in plaintiff's territory, but the reply thereto indicated, rather, that there was as yet no connection between the two companies.

Smyth sold defendant's fuel oil pursuant to the 1933 agreement until 1937. At that time defendant's financial representative requested a payment on account of an indebtedness due and when the Smyth firm was unable to meet this demand defendant's representative recommended that the business be sold. Upon Smyth's suggestion, the defendant expressed a willingness to purchase and after numerous negotiations the final agreement of sale was executed in 1938 at the defendant's home office in Stamford, Connecticut.

The agreement of sale recited all the monies purportedly due to date between the parties and arrived at a net indebtedness of $1,267.51 owing to the defendant. This sum was deducted from the agreed purchase price of $5,000 for the good will and the $3,732.49 balance was paid to the plaintiff.

Several months afterwards, according to his testimony, Smyth discovered that "Electrol" had been selling defendant's oil in plaintiff's former exclusive territory from 1935 to 1938 and had received commissions therefor totalling $6,925.56. Upon this evidence, has the plaintiff shown a case upon which a verdict for it for deceit could be rendered?

This being a case where the trial was in one state and the significant transaction in another state, it is the duty of the federal court to apply the rules of conflict of laws of the state where the litigation occurred. Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Mfg. Co., 1941, 313 U.S. 487, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 85 L. Ed. 1477; Boyle v. Ward, 3 Cir., 1942, 125 F.2d 672; Anthony P. Miller, Inc., v. Needham, 3 Cir., 1941, 122 F.2d 710.

The New Jersey rule of conflict of laws in tort actions is the usual one that the law of the place of wrong governs.*fn2 In an action for fraud and deceit, the place of wrong is the place where the loss is sustained. Restatement, Conflict of Laws (1934) § 377, n. pt. 4; 2 Beale, The Conflict of Laws (1935) § 377.2; A.B. v. C.D., D.C.E.D. Pa. 1940, 36 F.Supp. 85, affirmed, 3 Cir., 1941, 123 F.2d 1017; Commonwealth Fuel Co. v. McNeil, 1925, 103 Conn. 390, 404, 130 A. 794, 800; Bradbury v. Central Vermont Ry., 1938, 299 Mass. 230, 233, 12 N.E.2d 732, 734. This point seems not to have been considered in any New Jersey decision, but in view of the position of the courts of that state upon conflict of laws rule in torts cases, we have no reason to doubt that they would follow the rule thus expressed, since it seems to be undisputed. The alleged loss here is the sale of plaintiff's business for an inadequate consideration, settlement for commissions at a sum substantially less than actually due and the damage resulting therefrom. Since the event which occasioned these losses was the execution of the contract of sale in Connecticut, reference must be had to the law of Connecticut to determine whether the plaintiff has established the substantive elements of its claimed cause of action for deceit.

Referring to the Connecticut decisions, we find that one of the elements plaintiff must prove in an action for fraud and deceit is a misrepresentation of a fact,*fn3 or its fraudulent concealment,*fn4 or its nondisclosure where there is duty to disclose.*fn5 We must determine whether the present plaintiff met any of these requirements.

The fuel oil agreement is the foundation of the plaintiff's claim. It does not appear where this contract was executed. But whether rights under it are determined either by the law of Connecticut or New Jersey its effect is that the Petroleum company was obligated to pay to the Smyth firm commissions an all sales of its oil by whomsoever made, which were consummated within the exclusive territory.*fn6 The defendant, therefore, according to plaintiff's evidence, owed the plaintiff in addition to the $1,267.51 recited in the agreement of sale, $6,925.56, the admitted commissions on sales in Essex County, by "Electrol" or a total of $8,193.07. We believe a buyer is misrepresenting a fact within the meaning of Connecticut law when, as a step towards the consummation of an agreement of sale and in order to determine the final purchase price, he settles the accounts outstanding between himself and the seller and ...

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