Moore v. American Transport Company,
65 U.S. 1 (1860)

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Moore v. American Transport Company, 65 U.S. 24 How. 1 1 (1860)

Moore v. American Transport Company

65 U.S. (24 How.) 1


An act of Congress passed on the 3d of March, 1851, 9 Stat. 635, entitled "An act to limit the liability of ship owners, and for other purposes," provides that no owner of any ship or vessel shall be liable to answer for any loss or damage which may happen to any goods or merchandise which shall be shipped on board any such ship or vessel by reason of any fire happening on board the same unless such fire is caused by design or neglect of such owner, with a proviso that the parties may make such contract between themselves on the subject as they please.

The seventh section provides that this act shall not apply to the owner or owners of any canal boat, barge, or lighter or to any vessel of any description whatsoever used in rivers or inland navigation.

The exception does not include vessels used on the Great Lakes. Consequently, where goods were consumed by fire upon Lake Erie, without any design or neglect on the part of the owner of the vessel, he was not responsible for the loss.

The act not only exempts the owner from the casualty of fire, but limits his liability in cases of embezzlement or loss of goods on board by the master and others, and also for loss or damage by collisions, and even from any loss or damage occurring without the privity of the owner to an amount not exceeding the value of the vessel and freight.

This case was brought up from the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan by a writ of error issued under the 25th

Page 65 U. S. 2

section of the Judiciary Act; the construction of a clause of a statute of the United States (the exception in section 7 of the Act of March 3, 1851) being drawn in question, and the decision being against the right set up and claimed by the plaintiffs in error.

The suit was originally commenced in the Circuit Court for the County of Wayne, in the State of Michigan, holden in the City of Detroit, and was brought by the plaintiffs in error, merchants resident in that city, against the American Transportation company, a corporation created by the State of New York.

The declaration was in assumpsit, and charged the defendants as common carriers by water, of goods and chattels for hire, by canal boats and steam propellers from New York to Detroit. It then alleged the delivery of about $3,000 worth of groceries on board the propeller at Buffalo, which were not delivered through the burning of the propeller.

The defendants pleaded the general issue, nonassumpsit, and, under the Michigan practice, appended to the plea a notice that the statute of March 3, 1851, would be relied on as exempting the defendants. No replication was filed setting up the exception in the last section of said act, because the practice in that state does not permit such a pleading.

The cause was tried twice. At the first trial, the circuit judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, instructing the jury that that portion of the act giving the exemption claimed by the defendants was not applicable to the case, but that the vessel was engaged in inland navigation under the exception, as claimed by the plaintiffs, and accordingly, September 11, 1857, the plaintiffs had a verdict of $3,050.70.

The defendant presented a bill of exceptions and took a writ of error to the Supreme Court of Michigan, where the verdict was set aside and a new trial granted upon the ground that the propeller, when navigating Lake Erie, was not engaged in inland navigation under said exception, as claimed by the plaintiff, and held by the court below.

The case is reported in 5 Mich. (1 Cooley) 368. November 16, 1858, the new trial was had, and of course it resulted,

Page 65 U. S. 3

under the decision of the appellate court given above, in a verdict for the defendants.

The plaintiffs then filed their bill of exceptions, given at large in the record, showing that they requested the court to charge

"that the Act of Congress of March 3, 1851, had no applicability to the case, inasmuch as the Spaulding, being used principally in navigating between the Cities of Buffalo and Detroit by way of Lake Erie and Detroit River, was engaged in river and inland navigation within the exception in the last clause of section 7 of said act,"

and that the court refused so to charge, and charged to the contrary, and the plaintiffs duly excepted.

Upon writ of error by the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court of Michigan affirmed the judgment below in accordance with their former decision, and the plaintiffs brought the case up to this Court.

Page 65 U. S. 34

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