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Catron

United States Supreme Court

43 U.S. 711

Bank of the United States  v.  United States


Mr. Justice CATRON.

By the instructions given by the Circuit Court, the controversy is made to turn on the construction of the statute of Maryland; nor does the record raise any question on the transaction growing out of the fact, that it was one between governments, to obtain a sum of money due from the one to the other; in which the corporation acted as an instrument and agent, in a form suggested by itself, to obtain the money. For instance: if it be true, that the United States, in fact, received no money from the bank for the bill, it not having been charged to the bank; this being found, with the additional fact, that the parties intended to await the event of payment, or refusal, on the part of France, and let the bank hold and use the money awaiting the event; then the question on the equity of the case may arise. But the jury did not pass on any such facts, the instruction given rendering the inquiry unnecessary; and so it cut off every other question the plaintiff might have raised in opposition to the offset claimed.

The foregoing is given merely as an instance, to show that no question arises on the record, but on the construction of the act of 1785.

The statute provides for two classes of cases: 1st, 'the owner or holder of the protested bill, or the person or persons, company, society, or corporation entitled to the same;' and 2dly, 'and endorser of the bill who should pay to the holder, or the person or persons, company, society, or corporation entitled to the same, the value of the principal and the damages and interest.'

In the first class, the 'owner or holder,' &c., shall have a right to receive and recover so much current money as will purchase a good bill of exchange of the same time of payment, and upon the same place, at the current exchange of such bills, and also fifteen per cent. damages upon the value of the principal sum mentioned in such bill, and costs of protest, together with legal interest upon the value of the principal sum mentioned in such bill, from the time of protest, until the principal and damages are paid and satisfied.

In the second class, the endorser who has paid the principal, damages, and interest, shall have a right to receive and recover the sum paid, with legal interest upon the same, from the drawer or any other person or persons, company, society, or corporation, liable to such endorser upon such bill of exchange.

It is not necessary to inquire whether this statute includes all possible cases, and if it does not, by what law the cases so unprovided for would be governed, because the bank is seeking, in this instance, to being itself within the statute; unless it does so, the precise claim of fifteen per cent. cannot be sustained. The charge of the court below was twofold.

1. That the case was governed by the law of Maryland, and

2. Construing that law.

The bill of exceptions includes both points; but this court has proceeded to examine and decide the cause on the second only, passing over the first.

The bank must then bring itself within one of the two classes above described; let us examine them in order.

Was the bank at the time when its present rights accrued, the 'owner or holder of the bill.' I say at the time its present rights accrued, because this general proposition includes the rights acquired at the time of protest, or acquired subsequently each of which branches must be separately examined.

The bill was endorsed to Messrs. Baring, Brothers and Co., of London, on some day which the record does not state: that it was sold to the Barings, and not sent over for collection, is not controverted, nor open to question.

It was then passed by endorsement to N. M. Rothschild, and from him to the Messrs. Rothschild in Paris, in whose possession it is found on the day that it became due. It was at their request that a demand was made, by the notary, for payment, and upon refusal, that the bill was protested. So far, they appear to have been, and no doubt were, both the 'owners and holders of the bill,' and the only 'persons entitled to the same at the time of the protest.'

Hottinguer and Co. intervened immediately after protest, and paid the bill for the honor of the bank. What rights were then acquired?

It will not be necessary to examine and decide whether they acquired a right to fifteen per cent. damages or not; or to comment upon the want of harmony in the law, if it were to allow to a volunteer, who had no right to complain of anybody, the same damages which it gives to a disappointed and suffering party expressly because he has been put to great inconvenience and to hazard of discredit, by the omission of the drawer to provide the necessary funds to meet the bill. The books and cases all recognise the right of such a volunteer to principal, interests, and costs. If Hottinguer and Co. were the parties to this suit, it would become necessary to examine the question of their claim to damages; but we are now investigating the rights of the bank.

Granting that the Messrs. Rothschild, immediately upon protest, became vested with the right, under the statute, to 'receive and recover' from the drawer fifteen per cent. damages in addition to the other sum pointed out in the law; and granting also, for the sake of the argument, that all these rights passed to M. Hottinguer, with the delivery of the bill, it is clear that he was vested with a right that he could exercise or not at his pleasure. If he forbore to claim the damages, he mutilated the rights attached to the bill, supposing all the rights of the parties to be transferred with the bill from one to another. His right to relinquish the damages cannot well be disputed. It was property, and could be given away. It is not our province to inquire into his reasons; we can deal only with facts. It appears from the record, that instead of charging fifteen per cent. damages, he contended himself with charging a commission of one-half per cent., amounting to 24,283 francs and 33 centimes; less then 5,000 dollars. This commission may have been paid to him by the bank, and it appears from a report from the first auditor's office, dated July 29, 1837, that this commission would be paid by the United States to the bank upon presentation of a proper voucher.

There is nothing in the record to show that Hottinguer and Co., even up to this time, sanction this claim of fifteen per cent., or that the bank intends to pay it over to Hottinguer and Co., if it shall succeed in compelling the United States to pay it. On the contrary, the claim of the bank appears to be prosecuted for its own benefit; and the result will be that the bank, if it succeeds in this suit, will pay to Hottinguer and Co. less than $5,000, and keep $165,000 for itself.

At the time of the protest, and immediately afterwards, comprehending the payment supra protest, and protest itself, either Rothschild or Hottinguer and Co. were the 'owners or holders' of the bill, as described in the first class of the statute, and of course no rights whatever accrued to the bank. Did it subsequently acquire any?

In what particular manner the bill was transferred by Hottinguer and Co. to the bank after protest and payment-whether by general or special endorsement, or by a receipt upon the bill the record does not show. It only says that 'the bill of exchange and protest were transmitted to the bank, which thereby, and by reason of the premises, became and were again holders and owners of the same.' But the claim for fifteen per cent. damages had been voluntarily waived, as we have seen, by Hottinguer and Co., and it is not easy to see how any person claiming under them could have any more rights than those which the assignors chose to insist upon. The mere possession of the bill is not sufficient, because that possession was accompanied by a cotemporaneous declaration that Hottinguer and Co. intended to claim nothing more than one-half per cent. commission.

It is not perceived, then, how the bank can being itself within the class of cases provided for in the first branch of the statute. Is it within the second?

This depends entirely upon the answer to the question, has it, as endorser, paid the damages to the owner or holder of the bill, or to any one? If it has, the record does not show it. On the contrary, all that it has paid was the commission of a half per cent. to Hottinguer and Co., if indeed it has paid that, for there is no evidence of it. The propriety of the statute is not the subject of examination; but it may be remarked that it appears to be founded on reason and justice. Every successive endorser, as he transfers a bill of exchange, receives from the endorsee its full value; and being thus reimbursed for his outlay in the purchase of the bill, the inconvenience which falls upon somebody when the bill is protested does not touch him. His account is already balanced. The reason therefore for allowing damages utterly ceases as to him. He has no fresh bill to purchase, either by re-exchange or in any other manner. But when he is made responsible, as he may be, to the holder, for the amount of the bill and damages, it is fair and reasonable that the same liability should travel upward until it is ultimately fastened upon the drawer; each endorser being obliged to refund to the one below him exactly what that one has been compelled to pay. But the bank has not paid these damages, and consequently is not within the second class of cases.

Being not within the statute at all, the claim for damages cannot be sustained.

The argument that the fifteen per cent. is not damages, but exchange, is entirely unsound, as I conceive, in this case. The statute gives exchange from the place of drawing interest, costs of protest, and fifteen per cent. damages, in addition. The first is indemnity; the second a penalty. By commercial men the first is construed liberally, as within the general rule governing bills of exchange, with the difference of estimating the exchange from the place of drawing, instead of re-exchange; the right to the penalty is strictly construed, according to the words of the statute. Its plain meaning must govern the merchant and business man; for him it was made. He is told that the owner of a bill, at the time of its protest, shall be entitled to fifteen per cent. damages from the drawer, or endorser, in every case; and that the endorser shall be entitled to the same, (from the drawer, or a prior endorser,) provided the owner makes him pay the fifteen per cent.; not otherwise. And this I understand to have been the uniform mode of proceeding under the statute by the merchants of Maryland, under the 1st and 3d sections of the act; nor does it appear by the books of reports of that state, that this interpretation by business men has ever been questioned in the courts of justice there. For the reasons stated, I think the instruction given to the jury in the Circuit Court was proper, and that the judgment ought to be affirmed.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).