Moore v. American Transport Company
Annotate this Case
65 U.S. 1 (1860)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Moore v. American Transport Company, 65 U.S. 24 How. 1 1 (1860)
Moore v. American Transport Company
65 U.S. (24 How.) 1
ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT
OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN
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
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,
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.
MR. JUSTICE NELSON delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan.
The suit was brought by the plaintiffs in the court below against the defendants, a company incorporated under the laws of New York, and owners of the steam propeller M. B. Spaulding.
The goods in question were put on board of the propeller at Buffalo on the 30th October, 1856, for transportation to Detroit, and on the next day they took fire, and vessel and goods were entirely consumed, without any default or negligence of the master or crew or any knowledge of the defendants, their officers or agents. The propeller was of more than twenty tons burden, and was enrolled and licensed for the coasting trade, and engaged in navigation and commerce as a
common carrier between ports and places in different states upon the lakes and navigable waters connecting the same.
The defendants relied in their defense upon the Act of Congress, passed March 3, 1851, entitled "an act to limit the liability of ship owners, and for other purposes."
The 1st section 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 boards 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 2d section provides against any liability of the owner of the vessel, in case of precious metals &c., unless notice and entry on the bill of landing.
The 3d section provides against liability of the owner, in cases of embezzlement or loss &c., by the master, officers &c., of any property shipped on board, or for any loss by collision &c., without the privity or knowledge of the owner, exceeding the value of his interest in the ship and freight.
The 4th section provides for an apportionment of the proceeds, in case of the sale of the vessel, among the several freighters or owners of the goods if these and the freight should not be sufficient to pay each loss.
The 6th section saves the remedy against the master and hands in case of embezzlement or loss or for any negligence or malversation by these persons.
The 7th section, after providing a penalty for shipping oil of vitriol and such dangerous materials without notice to the master, is as follows:
"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."
It is insisted on the part of the plaintiffs that the navigation of Lake Erie, and also of all the other lakes in connection therewith, is within the exception to this act as falling within the words "inland navigation." The question thus raised is
not without difficulty, as we have no clear or certain guide to lead us to the true meaning attached to these words by Congress. Looking at them in a very general sense and without much regard to the reasons or policy of the law it may, with some plausibility be urged, as has been on behalf of the plaintiffs, that the phrase "inland navigation" was used as contradistinguished from navigation upon the ocean, and that all vessels navigating waters within headlands, and after they have passed out of the ocean, come within the designation. But a construction thus broad can hardly be maintained, for it would be unreasonable to suppose that Congress intended to apply one rule of responsibility to the owner in respect to the same vessel upon the ocean and another upon the bays or rivers in the course of the same voyage. Besides the absence of any good reason for such a distinction as to the rule of responsibility, it would have seriously embarrassed all parties engaged in commerce of this description in respect to their securities against accidents, and losses by means of insurance, bills of lading, charter parties &c.
The connection in which this term "inland navigation" is used in the act, we think, may throw some light upon the intent of the lawmakers.
It is declared that the act shall not apply to the owner of any canal boat, barge, or lighter, or to any vessel of any description used in rivers or inland navigation. It will be seen that certain craft is excepted from the act eo nomine, and then a class of vessels without any designation, other than by a reference to the waters or locality in which used. But the character of the craft enumerated may well serve to indicate to some extent, and with some reason, the class of vessels in the mind of the lawmakers, which are designated by the place where employed. This class may well be regarded ejusdem generis, and thus aid us in interpreting the true meaning of the words of the act -- namely vessels "used in rivers or inland navigation."
Many of the provisions of this act were taken from the 53 Geo. 3, c. 159, as also the exception to the enacting clause. The exception in the English act is as follows: that nothing
in this act shall extend to the owner of any "lighter, barge, boat, or vessel of any description whatsoever, used solely in rivers or inland navigation."
The language of this exception is more specific than that used in ours. but the meaning intended to be conveyed, we think substantially the same. The words in ours are, "any vessel of any description whatsoever, USED in rivers or inland navigation." This word "used" means, in the connection found, "employed," and doubtless in the mind of Congress was intended to refer to vessels solely employed in rivers or inland navigation. It was this species of navigation -- that is, on rivers and inland -- which was intended to be withdrawn from the limitation of the liability of the owner, and the addition of the term "inland navigation" as an alternative to rivers was doubtless designed, speaking in a general sense, to embrace all internal waters, either connected with rivers, but which did not, in a geographical or popular sense, fall under that name, or which might not be connected with rivers, but fell within the reason or policy of the exception, such as bays, inlets, straits &c. Vessels, whatever may be their class or description, solely employed upon these waters, are usually employed in the trade and traffic of the localities, carried on chiefly by persons residing upon their borders and connected with the local business, and without the formalities and precautions observed in regular commercial pursuits with a view to guard against accidents and losses, such as insurance, bills of lading &c. It was fit and proper, therefore, in this description of trade and traffic, that the common law liabilities of the carrier should remain unaltered.
But the business upon the Great Lakes lying upon our Northern frontiers, carried on between the states, and with the foreign nation with which they are connected (and this is the only business which Congress can regulate or with which we are dealing) is of a very different character. They form a boundary between this foreign country and the United States for a distance of some twelve hundred miles, and are of an average width of at least one hundred miles, and this, without including Lake Michigan, of itself three hundred and fifty
miles in length and ninety in breadth, which lies wholly within the United States. The aggregate length of these lakes is over fifteen hundred miles, and the area covered by their waters is said to be some ninety thousand square miles. The commerce upon them corresponds with their magnitude.
According to the best official statistics, the value of the property annually the subject of this commerce exceeds $600,000,000, employing more than sixteen hundred vessels, with an aggregate tonnage exceeding four hundred thousand tons. These vessels are duly licensed for the foreign trade as well as for that carried on coastwise. This commerce, from its magnitude and the well known perils incident to the lake navigation, deserves to be placed on the footing of commerce on the ocean, and we think in view of it Congress could not have classed it with the business upon rivers or inland navigation in the sense in which we understand these terms.
These lakes are usually designated by public men and jurists, when speaking of them, as great inland waters, inland seas, or Great Lakes, and if Congress intended to have excluded them from the limitation of the liabilities of owners, it would have been most natural and reasonable, and indeed almost a matter of course, to have referred to them by a more specific designation.
The decision in the case of the Lexington, which was burned upon Long Island Sound, led to this act of 1851. That case was decided in 1848, subjecting the carrier in case of a loss by fire. 47 U. S. 6 How. 344
The Sound is but one hundred and ten miles in length, and from two to twenty in breadth.
The waters of these lakes, in the aggregate, exceed those of the Baltic, the Caspian, or the Black sea, and approach in magnitude those of the Mediterranean. They exceed those of the Red Sea, the North Sea or German Ocean, the Sea of Marmora, and of Azoff. And like the lakes, all of these seas, with the exception of the North Sea, are tideless. The marine disasters upon these lakes, in consequence of the few natural harbors for the shelter of vessels and the consequent losses of life and property, are immense. According to the
report of a committee in the House of Representatives in 1856, the destruction of property upon Lake Michigan in the year 1855 exceeded $1,000,000. The appalling destruction of life in the loss of the Erie upon Lake Erie and of the Superior and Lady Elgin upon Michigan, are still fresh in the recollections of the country. The policy and justice of the limitation of the liability of the owners, under this act of 1851 are as applicable to this navigation as to that of the ocean. The act was designed to promote the building of ships and to encourage persons engaged in the business of navigation, and to place that of this country upon a footing with England and on the continent of Europe. 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, officers &c., and also for loss or damage from collisions, and indeed for any loss or damage occurring without the privity of the owner, to an amount not exceeding the value of the vessel and freight.
It has been suggested that our construction of the act may embrace within the limitation of the liability of the owners Western lakes lying within a state, such as the Cayuga, Seneca, and the like. But the answer is that commerce upon these lakes, and all others similarly situated, is not within the regulation of Congress. The act can apply to vessels only which are engaged in foreign commerce, and commerce between the states. The purely internal commerce and navigation of a state is exclusively under state regulation.
We think the court below was right, and that the judgment should be
MR. JUSTICE CATRON dissenting.
By the common law of England ship owners were common carriers, and insurers against loss, of the goods shipped, without limitation as to the waters upon which the ships were navigated. Abbott on Shipping 395. In the United States, the same law governed. 2 Kent's Com. 599. N.J. S. Nav. Co. v. Merchants' Bank, 6 How. 334. In parts of continental Europe, the law was different. The preamble of the British
act of 7 Geo. 3d, declares,
"That it was of the greatest consequence and importance to the Kingdom to promote and increase the number of ships and vessels, and to prevent any discouragement to merchants, and others, from being interested and concerned therein."
The object of the British legislation was "to encourage persons to become owners of ships." By the act of Geo. 2d and others, the Parliament exempted ship owners from liability in several cases of loss, and among them loss by fire. That these laws applied to commerce on the ocean is not controverted. Nor are they in force on the Great Lakes, partly belonging to Great Britain, on this continent.
Our Act of Congress of March 3, 1851, was passed to put our commercial marine on an equal footing with that of Great Britain, so that the increase of the number of ships and the navigation of them might be equally encouraged. That competition with British shipping was the object of Congress is manifest to my mind from the fact that the provisions of our statute correspond to British statutes. As there was no competition on our lakes, great or small, there was no reason for exempting owners of vessels from liability, and especially for the reason that a vessel navigating a lake from one port to another in the same state is not within the act, as Congress could only legislate by force of the commercial power and regulate commerce among the states. The act of 1851 does not in terms nor by any fair intendment, as I think, attempt to regulate such internal commerce. Fearing, however, that it might be held to apply to actual navigation, an exception was appended to the act declaring that it should not apply to owners of canal boats, nor to lighters or barges. This description of vessels were brought into or used in harbors and bays, and these, being arms of the sea, might be held as coming within the provisions of the act of Congress, the commerce they were engaged in being connected with that on the ocean. The commerce on the Chesapeake, through the tidewater canal, into the Delaware, by vessels propelled by steam, and the commerce carried on through the Hudson, into New York harbor, by canal boats and barges, show the
reason why the exception was made as respects this class of vessels.
And then comes the exception of vessels that had no connection with commerce on the ocean, which declares, that the act shall not apply to any vessel, of any description whatsoever, used in rivers or used in inland navigation. Why should navigation on the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence be governed by one law, and the Great Lakes, Green bay, Lake Champlain, Great Salt lake, Utah lake, and many others by another rule of liability? Congress has made no such distinction, but on the contrary, every section and clause of the act of 1851 refer to losses happening on, or to vessels navigating, the ocean. The third section is especially significant of this conclusion.
What the expression "inland navigation" means must be ascertained from the geography of our own country and the commerce carried on by vessels on its waters. Lake Erie is inland, and a voyage from Buffalo to Detroit is, in my judgment, "inland navigation." I am therefore of the opinion that the judgment should be reversed.