A Bridge, a Tax Revolt, and the Struggle to Industrialize: The Story and Legacy of Rockingham County V. Luten Bridge Co.
72 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2005 Last revised: 3 Aug 2012
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 conflictendemic throughout North Carolina and the Southover 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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