The defendants in each of these cases are an express company, engaged in the business of carrying for hire money, goods, and parcels, from one locality to another. In the transaction of their business they employ the railroads, steamboats, and other public conveyances of the country. These conveyances are not owned by them, nor are they subject to their control, any more than they are to the control of other transporters or passengers. The packages intrusted to their care are at all times, while on these public conveyances, in the charge of one of their own messengers or agents. In conducting their business, they are associated with another express company, called the Southern; and the two companies are engaged in carrying by rail through Louisiana and Mississippi, to Humboldt, Tenn., and thence over the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to Louisville, Ky., under a contract by which they divide the compensation for carriage in proportion to the distance the package is transported by them respectively. Between Humboldt and Louisville both companies employ the same messenger, who is exclusively subject to the orders of the Southern Express Company when south of the northern boundary of Tennessee, and to the orders of the defendants when north of that boundary.
Such being the business and occupation of the defendants, they are to be regarded as common carriers, and, in the absence of stipulations to the contrary, subject to all the legal responsibilities of such carriers.
On the twenty-sixth day of July, 1869, the Southern Express Company received from the Louisiana National Bank at New Orleans two packages, one containing $13,528.15, for delivery to the Bank of Kentucky, Louisville, and the other containing
Domestic Bill of Lading.
SOUTHERN EXPRESS COMPANY, EXPRESS FORWARDERS.
"Received from Lou. Nat. Bank one package, sealed, and said to contain thirteen thousand five hundred and twenty-eight 15/100 dollars.
"Addressed Bank of Kentucky, Louisville, Ky. Freight coll.
"Upon the special acceptance and agreement that this company is to forward the same to its agent nearest or most convenient to destination only, and then to deliver the same to other parties to complete the transportation, such delivery to terminate all liability of this company for such package; and also that this company are not to be liable in any manner or to any extent for any loss, danger, or detention of such package or its contents, or of any portion thereof, occasioned by the acts of God, or by any person or persons acting or claiming to act in any military or other capacity in hostility to the government of the United States, or occasioned by civil or military authority, or by the acts of any armed or other mob or riotous assemblage, piracy, or the dangers incident to a time of war, nor when occasioned by the dangers of railroad transportation, or ocean or river navigation, or by fire or steam. The shipper and owner hereby severally agree that all the stipulations and conditions in this receipt shall extend to and inure to the benefit of each and every company or person to whom the Southern Express Company may intrust or deliver the above-described property for transportation, and shall define and limit the liability therefor of such other companies or person. In no event is this company to be liable for a greater sum than that above mentioned, nor shall it be liable for any such loss, unless the claim therefor shall be made in writing, at this office, within thirty days from this date, in a statement to which this receipt shall be annexed.
"Insured by Southern Express Company for to only except against loss occasioned by the public enemy.
"For the company —
The bills of lading were sent to the consignees at Louisville.
Having thus received the packages, the Southern Express Company transported them by railroad as far as Humboldt, Tenn., and there delivered them to the messenger of the defendants (who was also their messenger) to complete the transportation to Louisville, and to make delivery thereof to the plaintiffs. For that purpose the messenger took charge of them, placing them in an iron safe, and depositing the safe in an apartment of a car set apart for the use of express companies, for transportation to Louisville. Subsequently, while the train to which the car containing the packages was attached was passing over a trestle on the line of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, and while the packages were in charge of the messenger, the trestle gave way during the night, the train with the express car was thrown from the track, and the car with others caught fire from the locomotive and was burned, together with the money in the safe. The messenger was rendered insensible by the fall, and he continued so until after the destruction was complete. There was some evidence that some of the timber of the trestle seemed decayed.
Upon this state of facts the learned judge of the Circuit Court instructed the jury, that, "If they believed the package was destroyed by fire, as above indicated, without any fault or neglect whatever on behalf of the messenger or defendants, the defendants have brought themselves within the terms of the exceptions in the bill of lading, and are not liable." And again, the court charged: "It is not material to inquire whether the accident resulted from the want of care, or from the negligence of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company, and its agents, or not." And again: "But when he (the common carrier) has limited his liability, so as to make himself responsible for
These extracts from the charge, to all of which exception was duly taken, exhibit the most important question in these cases, which is, whether the stipulations of the carriers' receipt or bill of lading relieved them from responsibility for the negligence of the railroad company employed by them to complete the carriage. The Circuit Court was of opinion, as we have seen, that they did; and practically instructed the jury, that, under the modified contract of bailment, the defendants were liable for loss by fire only to the extent to which mere bailees for hire, not common carriers, are liable; that is, that they were responsible ônly for the want of ordinary care exercised by themselves or those who were under their control. With this we cannot concur, though we are not unmindful of the ability with which the learned judge has defended his opinion.
We have already remarked, the defendants were common carriers. They were not the less such because they had stipulated for a more restricted liability than would have been theirs had their receipt contained only a contract to carry and deliver. What they were is to be determined by the nature of their business, not by the contract they made respecting the liabilities which should attend it. Having taken up the occupation,
The duty of a common carrier is to transport and deliver safely. He is made, by law, an insurer against all failure to perform this duty, except such failure as may be caused by the public enemy, or by what is denominated the act of God. By special contract with his employers, he may, it is true, to some extent, be excused, if the limitations to his responsibility stipulated for are, in the judgment of the law, reasonable, and not inconsistent with sound public policy. It is agreed, however, that he cannot, by any contract with his customers, relieve himself from responsibility for his own negligence or that of his servants; and this because such a contract is unreasonable and contrary to legal policy. So much has been finally determined in Railroad Company v. Lockwood, 17 Wall. 357. But can he, by a contract made with those who intrust property to him for carriage and delivery, — a contract made at the time he receives the property, — secure to himself exemption from responsibility for consequences of the negligence of a railroad company or its agents not owned or controlled by him, but which he employs in the transportation? This question is not answered in the Lockwood case. It is raised here, or rather the question is presented, whether a common carrier does relieve himself from the consequences of such negligence by a stipulation that he shall not be liable for losses by fire.
The exception or restriction to the common-law liability introduced into the bills of lading given by the defendants, so far as it is necessary to consider it, is, "that the express company are not to be liable in any manner or to any extent for any loss or damage, or detention of such package or its contents, or of any portion thereof, occasioned by fire." The language is very broad; but it must be construed reasonably, and, if possible, consistently with the law. It is not to be presumed the parties intended to make a contract which the law does not allow. If construed literally, the exception extends to all loss by fire, no matter how occasioned, whether occurring accidentally, or caused by the culpable negligence of the carriers or their servants, and even to all losses by fire caused by wilful
For these reasons, we think it is not admissible to construe the exception in the defendants' bills of lading as excusing them from liability for the loss of the packages by fire, if caused by the negligence of the railroad company to which they confided a part of the duty they had assumed.
There are other reasons of weight which deserve consideration.
Now, can it be a reasonable construction to give to the contract between the defendants and the plaintiffs, that the former, who had agreed to carry and deliver the packages at Louisville, reserved to themselves the right to employ a subordinate carrier, arrange with him that he should be responsible only for ordinary vigilance against fire, and by that arrangement relieve themselves from what without it would have been their clear duty? Granting that the plaintiffs can sue the railroad company for the loss of the packages through its fault, their right comes through their contract between it and the defendants. They must claim through that. 6 How. 381. Had the packages
It has been urged on the part of the defence, that, though the contract does not attempt to exempt, and could not have exempted, the express company from liability for loss occasioned by the neglect of itself or its servants, yet, when it is sought to charge the company with neglect, it must be such as it is responsible for upon the general principles of law; and that, upon those principles, no one is responsible for damage occasioned by neglect, unless it be the neglect of himself, his servants, or agents. The argument mistakes, we think, when it asserts, that, upon general principles of law, no one is responsible for the consequences of any neglect except his own, or that of his agents or servants. Common carriers certainly are, and for very substantial reasons. These defendants, it is agreed, were common carriers; and they remained such after the exception in their receipt. If it be said, the exception reduced their responsibility to such an extent as to make them liable only for such neglect as fastens a liability upon persons who are not common carriers, the answer is, such an averment assumes the
Again: it is urged, that, though the defendants remained common carriers, notwithstanding their contract, their responsibility was limited by their receipt to that of an ordinary bailee for hire; and, as such a bailee is not held liable for the neglect of persons over whom he has no control, it is argued that these defendants are not liable for the negligence of the railroad company. This also assumes what cannot be admitted. Although we are told all the authorities agree, that, when a common carrier has by special contract limited his liability, he becomes, with reference to that particular transaction, an ordinary bailee, — a private carrier for hire, — or reduces his responsibilities to those of an ordinary bailee for hire, yet we do not find that the authorities assert that doctrine, if by the phrase "that particular transaction" is meant the undertaking to carry. Certainly, those to which we have been referred do not. We do not deny that a contract may be made which will put a common carrier on the same level with a private carrier for hire, as respects his liability for loss caused by the acts or omissions of others. The consignor may, by contract, restrain him; may direct how and by what agencies he shall carry. Under such an arrangement he may become a mere forwarder, and cease to be a carrier. But what we have to decide in these cases is, whether the contract proved has that operation. We have already said, we think it has not. The exception in the bills of lading has sufficient to operate upon, without being a cover for negligence on the part of any persons engaged in the service undertaken by the carriers. It exempts the defendants from responsibility for loss by fire, caused by the acts or omissions of all persons who are not agents or agencies for the transportation.
That is a large restriction; and beyond that, in our judgment, the exception in the present case does not extend.
To the opinion we have thus expressed we find direct support in the case of Hooper v. Wells, Fargo, & Co., 27 Cal. 11.
We find no error in what the circuit judge said upon the question whether the bills of lading, with the exceptions, constituted the contract between the parties. The charge in this particular is justified by very numerous authoritative decisions. York Company v. Central Railroad Company, 3 Wall. 107; Grace v. Adams, 100 Mass. 505; Wells v. The Steam Nav. Co., 2 Comst. 204; Dorr v. New Jersey Steam Nav. Co., 1 Kern. 485; 6 How. 344; 3 Wall. 107; 6 Blatchf. 64; Kirkland v. Dinsmore, 62 N.Y. 161.
Nor was there error in the instruction given respecting the iron safe. Taken as a whole, it was correct.
The charge covered the whole case, and, except in those particulars in which we have indicated our opinion that it was erroneous, we find no just reason to complain of it.
But for the errors we have pointed out new trials must be awarded.
Judgment in each case reversed, and the record remitted with directions to award a venire de novo.