United States v. Cornell Steamboat Co.
202 U.S. 184 (1906)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Cornell Steamboat Co., 202 U.S. 184 (1906)

United States v. Cornell Steamboat Company

No. 239

Argued April 20, 1906

Decided May 14, 1906

202 U.S. 184

Syllabus

While a claim for salvage of government property based on services rendered without request of any officer of the government does not arise upon any contract, express or implied, it is properly one for unliquidated damages in a case not sounding in tort, in respect to which the claimant would be entitled to redress in the admiralty court if the United States were suable, and, under the Tucker Act, the Court of Claims, or the proper district court where the claim is for less than $1,000, has jurisdiction of a suit therefor.

The successful salving of undelivered merchandise on which duties have been paid, but which the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized by §§ 2984, 3689, Rev.Stat., to refund if the goods were lost, entitles the salvors to recover from the government a reasonable salvage equal to that recovered on the private property saved at the same time, on the amount of duties which the government would have been under obligation to refund had the merchandise been lost. In such a case, it will be assumed that the duties will be refunded, and the claim therefor will be regarded as a liability, although § 2984 is permissive, and not mandatory, in form.

Although courts of admiralty have no general equity jurisdiction, and cannot afford equitable relief in a direct proceeding for that purpose, they may apply equitable principles to subjects within their jurisdiction.

This was a petition under what is known as the Tucker act, defining the jurisdiction of the Court of Claims, to recover salvage upon the duties on 1,883 bags of sugar, cargo of the lighter Bangor.

The facts agreed upon and found by the court are substantially as follows:

The Steamboat Company, a New York corporation, and owner of the steam tug R. G. Townsend at great risk and peril to the tug, saved a certain lot of 1,883 bags of sugar on board of a lighter called the Bangor, in the waters of the port

Page 202 U. S. 185

of New York, which was in danger of being destroyed by fire. The sugar had been imported from a foreign country, was subject to duty under the laws of the United States, and at the time of the fire had not been delivered to the consignees, and was still in the possession and control of the customs officers. The duties on this sugar, amounting to $6,000, had been paid to the government.

Petitioner filed a libel in the district court against the cargo to recover salvage compensation for services rendered in saving the sugar. The case resulted in a decree awarding the petitioner salvage, amounting to ten percent of the value of the property saved, viz., $1,274.03. 108 F. 277. In fixing this sum, the district court considered the invoice value of the sugar only, excluding salvage upon the duties saved to the United States by the salving services.

Upon these facts, the district court awarded the petitioner ten percent upon the amount of the duties saved to the United States -- namely, $600, with clerk's fees, $3.60. 130 F. 480. The circuit court of appeals affirmed this judgment, 137 F. 455, whereupon the United States applied for this writ of certiorari.

Page 202 U. S. 189

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