No. 39.

168 U.S. 104 (1897)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided October 28, 1897.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Wilhelmus Mynderse for Compania de Navigacion la Flecha.

MR. JUSTICE GRAY, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The contract sued on was made in October, 1891, more than a year before the passage of the Harter Act, and the case is unaffected by its provisions. Act of February 13, 1893, c. 105; 27 Stat. 445.

By the law of this country, before that act, as declared upon much consideration by this court, common carriers, by land or sea, could not, by any form of contract with the owner of property carried, exempt themselves from responsibility for loss or damage arising from negligence of their own servants; and any stipulation for such exemption was contrary to public policy and void. Railroad Co. v. Lockwood, 17 Wall. 357; Liverpool Steam Co. v. Phenix Ins. Co., 129 U.S. 397.

By the modern decisions in England, on the other hand, made since it has become to us a foreign country, common carriers, except so far as controlled by the provisions of the Railway and Canal Traffic Act of 1854, were permitted to exempt themselves by express contract for responsibility for losses occasioned by negligence of their servants. Peck v. North Staffordshire Railway, 10 H.L. Cas. 473, 493, 494; Steel v. State Line Steamship Co., 3 App. Cas. 72; Manchester &c. Railway v. Brown, 8 App. Cas. 703; In re Missouri Steamship Co., 42 Ch. D. 321; The Cressington, (1891) Prob. 152.

In the case at bar, the decision of the District Judge proceeded upon the ground that any stipulation directly exempting the carrier from all liability for negligence of his servants being void by our law as against public policy, the equivalent stipulation that the contract should be governed by the law of England was equally void, and could not be enforced in the courts of the United States. That decision is in accordance with the previous decision of the same judge in The Brantford City, 29 Fed. Rep. 373, and with several subsequent decisions of his. The Energia, 56 Fed. Rep. 124; The Guildhall, 58 Fed. Rep. 796; Botany Mills v. Knott, 76 Fed. Rep. 582. The like view has been taken by Judge Nelson in the District of Massachusetts in The Iowa, 50 Fed. Rep. 561; by Judge Benedict in the Eastern District of New York in Lewisohn v. National Steamship Co., 56 Fed. Rep. 602; and by Judge Butler in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in The Glenmavis, 69 Fed. Rep. 472. See also Oscanyan v. Arms Co., 103 U.S. 261; Hamlyn v. Talisker Distillery, (1894) App. Cas. 202, 209, 214; Rousillon v. Rousillon, 14 Ch. Div. 351, 369.

But it is unnecessary to express a decisive opinion upon the validity of the contract, because, assuming it to be valid and to govern the case, this court concurs with the Circuit Court of Appeals in the opinion that the respondent was liable for the loss in question.

Exceptions in a bill of lading or charter party, inserted by the shipowner for his own benefit, are unquestionably to be construed most strongly against him. The Caledonia, 157 U.S. 124, 137; The Majestic, 166 U.S. 375, 386; Norman v. Binnington, 25 Q.B.D. 475, 477; Baerselman v. Bailey, (1895) 2 Q.B. 301, 305.

By the laws of both countries, the ordinary contract of a common carrier by sea involves an obligation on his part to use due care and skill in navigating the vessel and in carrying the goods; and an exception, in the bill of lading, of perils of the sea, or other specified perils, does not excuse him from that obligation, nor exempt him from liability for loss or damage from one of those perils, to which the negligence of himself or his servants has contributed.

This rule of construction was fully established in this court before it had occasion to decide the question whether it was within the power of the carrier by express stipulation to exempt himself from all responsibility for the negligence of himself or his servants.

In the leading case of New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchants' Bank, 6 How. 344, a crate of William F. Harnden, in which was money belonging to the bank, was shipped upon a steamboat of the navigation company under an agreement stipulating that "the said crate, with its contents, is to be at all times exclusively at the risk of the said William F. Harnden, and the New Jersey Steam Navigation Company will not, in any event, be responsible, either to him or his employers, for the loss of any goods, wares, merchandise, money, notes, bills, evidences of debt, or property of any and every description, to be conveyed or transported by him in said crate, or otherwise, in any manner in the boats of the said company." This court held that the navigation company was not thereby exonerated from loss by fire arising from the negligence of that company or its servants; and the reasons for the decision were stated by Mr. Justice Nelson as follows: "The special agreement, in this case, under which the goods were shipped, provided that they should be conveyed at the risk of Harnden; and that the respondents were not to be accountable to him or to his employers, in any event, for loss or damage. The language is general and broad, and might very well comprehend every description of risks incident to the shipment. But we think it would be going farther than the intent of the parties, upon any fair and reasonable construction of the agreement, were we to regard it as stipulating for wilful misconduct, gross negligence, or want of ordinary care, either in the seaworthiness of the vessel, her proper equipments and furniture, or in her management by the master and hands." "If it is competent at all for the carrier to stipulate for the gross negligence of himself, and his servants or agents, in the transportation of the goods, it should be required to be done, at least, in terms that would leave no doubt as to the meaning of the parties." 6 How. 383, 384. See also The Hornet, 17 How. 100; Transportation Co. v. Downer, 11 Wall. 129; The Syracuse, 12 Wall. 167; Liverpool Steam Co. v. Phenix Ins. Co., 129 U.S. 397, 438.

In England, likewise, it has long been recognized as a settled rule that under a contract to carry goods, containing an exception such as of "breakage or leakage," or of "barratry of the master or mariners," or of "perils of the sea," there still rests upon the carrier, not merely the duty to carry the goods if not prevented by the excepted perils, but also the obligation that he and his servants shall use due care and skill and shall not be negligent in carrying the goods. Phillips v. Clark, 2 C.B. (N.S.) 156; The Helene, L.R. 1 P.C. 231; Lloyd v. The General Iron Screw Colliery Co., 3 H. & C. 284; Grill v. Same, L.R. 1 C.P. 600, and L.R. 3 C.P. 476; Czech v. General Steam Navigation Co., L.R. 3 C.P. 14; Steel v. State Line Steamship Co., 3 App. Cas. 72, 87, 88; Manchester &c. Railway v. Brown, 8 App. Cas. 703, 709, 710; The Xantho, 12 App. Cas. 503, 510, 515.

The English case most resembling in its circumstances the case at bar is Leuw v. Dudgeon, briefly reported in L.R. 3 C.P. 17 note, and more fully in 17 Law Times, (N.S.) 145, by which it appears to have been as follows: Cattle were shipped, some of them on deck, under a bill of lading containing these clauses: "Ship free in case of mortality, and from all damage arising from the act of God, the Queen's enemies, fire, accidents from machinery, or boilers, steam, or other dangers of the seas, rivers, roadsteads or steam navigation whatsoever." "The ship not liable for accident, injury, mortality, or jettison, whether shipped on deck or in the hold." On the vessel putting out to sea, she experienced fine weather and the sea was smooth, but there was a ground swell, and after she had been out some time she suddenly rolled over on her beam ends; the cattle pens gave way, and the cattle fell over to the starboard side, and in order to save the vessel it was necessary to throw those on deck overboard. It was held that if the accident was owing to the vessel putting to sea with insufficient ballast, the owners were liable, notwithstanding the exemptions in the bill of lading, which included "jettison" as well as "accidents from dangers of the seas."

In that case, indeed, (as in the case in this court of The Caledonia, above cited,) the fault of the shipowner consisted in sending the ship to sea in an unseaworthy condition. But Mr. Justice Willes, who delivered the leading opinion, laid down the general rule that "the exceptions were intended to save the shipowner from liability for the effects of accident, and not to absolve him from the duty of exercising reasonable diligence." 17 Law Times, (N.S.) 146. And he treated the case as coming within the principle of that rule as affirmed in the cases, above cited, of Phillips v. Clark and Grill v. General Iron Screw Colliery Co., in the one of which the clause "not to be accountable for leakage or breakage," and in the other the clause "accidents or dangers of the seas, rivers or navigation, of whatever nature or kind soever, excepted," was held not to cover a loss, otherwise within the exception, caused by the negligence of the master or crew. So in Steel v. State Line Steamship Co., above cited, Lord Blackburn said, in the House of Lords, that in construing such exceptions in a bill of lading exactly the same considerations would arise as to the duty of the shipowner to furnish a ship really fit for the purpose, as had been applied, in the series of cases of which Phillips v. Clark was the leading one, to the duty of himself and his servants to use due care and skill in carrying the goods.

In Notara v. Henderson, L.R. 7 Q.B. 225, 236, the Court of Exchequer Chamber, in a considered judgment delivered by Mr. Justice Willes, held that the words "loss or damage arising from collision or other accidents of navigation occasioned by default of the master or crew, or any other accidents of the seas, rivers and steam navigation, of whatever nature or kind, excepted," did not exempt the owner from negligence in omitting to take out and dry the cargo at a port of distress, because the authorities (specially mentioning Grill v. General Iron Screw Colliery Co., above cited,) "and the reasoning upon which they are founded are conclusive to show that the exemption is from liability for loss which could not have been avoided by reasonable care, skill and diligence, and that it is inapplicable to the case of a loss arising from the want of such care and the sacrifice of the cargo by reason thereof."

In Gill v. Manchester &c. Railway, L.R. 8 Q.B. 186, the Court of Queen's Bench, applying the same rule of construction, held that a provision in a contract for the carriage of cattle by railway, by which the railway company was not to be responsible for any loss or injury to the cattle "in the receiving, forwarding or delivering, if such damage be occasioned by the kicking, plunging or restiveness of the animal," did not relieve the company from liability for negligence of its servants in delivering a restive cow.

In Lloyd v. General Iron Screw Colliery Co., above cited, Lord Bramwell said that the words "accident or damage from machinery, boilers, steam," could not apply to an explosion caused by the wilful act of the engineer. 3 H. & C. 292.

The passages quoted by the respondent from Burton v. English, 12 Q.B.D. 218, 220, 223, as showing that the words "on deck at owner's risk" exempt the carrier from liability for unlawful jettison or for negligence of the master and crew, were obiter dicta, the only point decided being that those words did not exclude the right of the owner of the goods to recover in general average for a lawful jettison. See Ralli v. Troop, 157 U.S. 386, 396. The two other cases cited by the respondent were cases in which railway companies were held not to be responsible for the negligence of their servants under contracts essentially different from that now in question. One was an action by a passenger travelling as a drover accompanying cattle under a free pass, one of the terms of which was that he should travel at his own risk. McCauley v. Furness Railway, L.R. 8 Q.B. 57. The other was an action by a person who, knowing that the defendant had two rates of carriage, a higher rate when it took the ordinary liability of a carrier, and a lower rate when it was relieved from all liability except that arising from the wilful misconduct of its servants, delivered goods to be carried at the lower rate under a contract in which the only words defining the carrier's liability were "owner's risk." Lewis v. Great Western Railway, 3 Q.B.D. 195.

Upon consideration of the conflicting testimony, with the aid of the careful arguments of counsel, no ground is shown for reversing or modifying the conclusions of fact reached by both courts below. Their concurrent decisions upon a question of fact are to be followed, unless clearly shown to be erroneous. Morewood v. Enequist, 23 How. 491; The Richmond, 103 U.S. 540, and cases cited; The Conqueror, 166 U.S. 110, 136.

By the facts so found, it appears that the cattle, for the loss of which a recovery has been permitted, were sound and uninjured animals, forcibly thrown or driven overboard, in rough weather, by order of the master, from unfounded apprehension on his part, in the absence of any pressing peril to the ship, and with no apparent or reasonable necessity for a jettison of the sound cattle, and no attempt to separate them from those which had already been injured by perils of the sea.

The clauses of the bill of lading, (other than the reference to British law,) on which the respondent relies, are those in the first paragraph, "on deck at owner's risk; steamer not to be held accountable for accident to, or mortality of the animals, from whatever cause arising;" and those in the third paragraph, by which "it is also mutually agreed that the carrier shall not be liable for loss or damage occasioned by causes beyond his control, by the perils of the sea, or other waters;" "by barratry of the master or crew;" or "by collisions, stranding, or other accidents of navigation, of whatsoever kind, even when occasioned by the negligence, default, or error in judgment of the pilot, master, mariners or other servants of the shipowner."

The bill of lading itself shows that all the cattle to be carried under this contract were to be on deck. The words "on deck at owner's risk" cannot have been intended by the parties to cover risks from all causes whatsoever, including negligent or wilful acts of the master and crew. To give so broad an interpretation to words of exception, inserted by the carrier and for his benefit, would be contrary to settled rules of construction, and would render nugatory many of the subsequent stipulations of the bill of lading.

The wrongful jettison of the sound cattle by the act of the carrier's servants cannot reasonably, or consistently with the line of English authorities already cited, or with our own decisions, be considered either as an "accident to, or mortality of the animals," or as a "loss or damage occasioned by causes beyond his control, by the perils of the sea, or other waters," or yet as a loss or damage "by collisions, stranding, or other accidents of navigation." There having been no collision, stranding, or other accident of navigation, there was nothing to which the only stipulation in the bill of lading against the consequences of negligence, default, or error in judgment of the master and crew, could apply.

There was no barratry, because there was neither intentional fraud or breach of trust, nor wilful violation of law, one of which, at least, is necessary to constitute barratry. Patapsco Ins. Co. v. Coulter, 3 Pet. 222; Lawton v. Sun Ins. Co., 2 Cush. 500; Grill v. General Iron Screw Colliery Co., above cited.

The facts of the case, therefore, do not bring it within any of the exceptions of the bill of lading, assuming them to be valid.

Decree affirmed.


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