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A Bridge, a Tax Revolt, and the Struggle to Industrialize: The Story and Legacy of Rockingham County V. Luten Bridge Co.


Barak D. Richman


Duke University - School of Law

Jordi Weinstock


affiliation not provided to SSRN

Jason Mehta


Harvard Law School


North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 84, 2006
Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 101

Abstract:     
Rockingham County v. Luten Bridge Co. is now a staple in most contracts casebooks. The popular story goes as follows: Rockingham County entered into a contract with the Luten Bridge Company to build a bridge over the Dan River. Shortly after work commenced, the county repudiated the contract. Nonetheless, the Luten Bridge Company continued with its construction project and sued the county for the entire bill. Judge John J. Parker, the longtime Chief Judge of the Fourth Circuit, ruled in the famous 1929 opinion that the county was liable only for the costs up until the time of breach, a sum of approximately $1,900, plus the anticipated profit, and not for the entire bill that was closer to $18,000. The case is used to illustrate the "duty to mitigate," whereby a party to a contract against whom a breach has occurred is obligated to mitigate the damages resulting from that breach.

A closer look at the case reveals that the underlying dispute was more about the legitimacy of local government. The dispute emerged when angry taxpayers charged the county commissioners with pursuing a corrupt agenda on behalf of the industrialist who sponsored their political campaigns. But the conflict also revealed traditional tensions between the county's farmers and its mercantile mill owners and constituted a microcosm of the larger political conflict—endemic throughout North Carolina and the South—over investing in public improvements to promote industrialization. Judge Parker's opinion was an effort to arm county governments with the powers necessary to facilitate industrialization and secure good governance. The duty to mitigate damages was merely an afterthought.

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Date posted: December 16, 2005 ; Last revised: August 3, 2012

Suggested Citation

Richman, Barak D. and Weinstock, Jordi and Mehta, Jason, A Bridge, a Tax Revolt, and the Struggle to Industrialize: The Story and Legacy of Rockingham County V. Luten Bridge Co.. North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 84, 2006; Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 101. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=870459

Contact Information

Barak D. Richman (Contact Author)
Duke University - School of Law ( email )
210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7244 (Phone)
919-613-7231 (Fax)
Jordi Weinstock
affiliation not provided to SSRN
Jason Mehta
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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