The Delaware,
81 U.S. 579 (1871)

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Delaware, 81 U.S. 14 Wall. 579 579 (1871)

The Delaware

81 U.S. (14 Wall.) 579


1. A "clean" bill of lading -- that is to say a bill of lading which is silent as to the place of stowage -- imports a contract that the goods are to be stowed under deck.

2. This being so, parol evidence of an agreement that they were to be stowed on deck is inadmissible.

The Oregon Iron Company, on the 8th of May, 1868, shipped on board the bark Delaware, then at Portland, Oregon, 76 tons of pig iron, to be carried to San Francisco, at a freight of $4.50 a ton. The bill of lading was in these words:

"Shipped, in good order and condition, by Oregon Iron Company, on board the good bark Delaware, Shillaber, master, now lying in the port of Portland, and bound to San Francisco, to say seventy-five tons pig iron, more or less (contents, quality, and weight unknown), being marked as in the margin, and are to be delivered in like good order and condition at the aforesaid port of San Francisco, at ship's tackles (the dangers of the seas, fire, and collision excepted) unto _____, or assigns, he or they paying freight for the said goods in United States gold coin (before delivery, if required), as per margin, with 5 percent primage and average accustomed."

"In witness whereof the master or agent of said vessel hath affirmed to three bills of lading, all of this tenor and date; one of which being accomplished, the others to stand void. Vessel not accountable for breakage, leakage, or rust."


"For the captain"

"PORTLAND, May 8, 1868"

The iron was not delivered at San Francisco, and on a libel filed by the Iron Company, the defense set up was that by a verbal agreement made between the Iron Company and the master of the ship before the shipment or the signing of the bill of lading, the iron was stowed on deck, and that the

Page 81 U. S. 580

whole of it, with the exception of 6 tons and 90 lbs., had been jettisoned in a storm.

On the trial, the owners of the vessel offered proof of this parol agreement. The libellants objected, and the court excluded the evidence on the ground that parol proof was inadmissible to vary the bill of lading; and decreed in favor of the libellants for the iron that was thrown overboard. On appeal the case was disposed of in the same way in the circuit court. It was now here, the question being, as in the two courts below, whether in a suit upon a bill of lading like the one here, for nondelivery of goods stowed on deck, and jettisoned at sea, it is competent, in the absence of a custom to stow such goods on deck, to prove by parol a verbal agreement for such a stowage.

The district court, in its opinion, among other things, said as follows:

"It is not disputed that the ordinary bill of lading imports that the goods are to be safely stowed under deck. It must also be admitted that, if they are stowed on deck with the consent of the shipper, or in accordance with a well established and generally recognized usage, either of the particular trade or in respect of a particular kind of goods, the ship will not be liable. The point presented is, whether the consent of the shipper can be proved by parol."

"The case of Creery v. Holly, [Footnote 1] is directly in point. In that case Mr. Justice Nelson says:"

" It is true that in this case nothing is said in the bill of lading as to the manner of stowing the goods, whether on deck or under deck; but the case concedes that the legal import of the contract, as well as the understanding and usage of merchants, impose upon the master the duty of putting them under deck, unless otherwise stipulated; and if such is the judgment of the law upon the face of the instrument, parol evidence is as inadmissible to alter it as if the duty was stated in express terms. It was part of the contract. It seems to me it would be extremely dangerous, and subject to the full force of every objection that excludes the admission of this species of evidence, to permit any stipulation, express or implied, in these instruments, to be thus varied. . . . If the implied obligation of the master in this case,

Page 81 U. S. 581

arising out of the conceded construction of the bill of lading, may be varied by parol evidence, I do not see how any other stipulation included in it could be sustained upon an offer to impeach it in the same way."

"In Niles v. Culver, [Footnote 2] the same principle was applied to a memorandum, which imported a contract."

"In White v. Van Kirk, [Footnote 3] parol proof offered by a shipper of goods to show that the master agreed to take a particular route was held to be inadmissible."

"In The Waldo, [Footnote 4] the language of Mr. Justice Ware is nearly identical with that of Mr. Justice Nelson, above quoted:"

" It is true that the bill of lading does not say in express terms that the goods shall be stowed under deck, but this is a condition tacitly annexed to the contract by operation of law, and it is equally binding on the master, and the shipper is equally entitled to its benefit, although it was stated in express terms. The parol evidence, then, is offered to control the legal operation of the bill of lading, and it is as inadmissible as though it were to contradict its words."

"In Garrison v. Memphis Insurance Company, [Footnote 5] it was held that, where the bill of lading mentioned that the carrier was not to be responsible for injuries caused by the 'perils of the river,' parol evidence was inadmissible to show that by usage 'fire' was included among those perils."

"* * * *"

"Where a promissory note mentions no time of payment, the law adjudges it to be due immediately, and parol evidence is not admissible to show a different time of payment agreed upon by the parties at the time it was executed. [Footnote 6]"

These and other cases were relied on by the court, and in addition to them Barber v. Brace, in the Supreme Court of Connecticut, [Footnote 7] was cited by counsel, to show that "a parol agreement anterior to a written contract is inadmissible."

The question, as the reader familiar with the decisions on the subject will see, is one upon which opinions not consistent with some of those thus above quoted have been

Page 81 U. S. 582

given in certain courts. In this Court the question had never been specifically passed upon. On that account and for the importance of the question, the argument against the view in the courts below, is presented with more than ordinary fullness.

Page 81 U. S. 596

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