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Bulkley v. Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

65 U.S. 386

Bulkley  v.  Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company

THIS was an appeal from the Circuit Court of the United States sitting in admiralty for the district of Massachusetts.

The facts of the case are stated in the opinion of the court.

It was submitted on printed arguments by Mr. Loring for the appellant, and Mr. Andros for the appellee.

The principal question involved was thus stated by Mr. Loring in the opening of his argument:

One of the questions presented, the only one decided in the courts below, is whether or not a vessel may be liable, in a suit in rem, for the loss of or damage done to merchandise never received on board.

It was held that the mere reception of goods by the master or owners, for the purpose of being carried in a particular vessel, did create a liability on the part of the vessel for any subsequent loss or damage, though the goods were never placed on board, and the loss was not caused by the insufficiency of the vessel, or any fault of its owners, master, or crew.

The claimant, conceiving that this decision is contrary to the principles of the maritime law and without precedent, and that the question is of importance, presents it for the consideration of this tribunal, and respectfully asks its attention to the suggestions to be presented in his behalf.

It is impossible for the reporter to do full justice to the arguments of the counsel on both sides, because they included so many branches of inquiry, with references to authorities. All that he can do is to give merely the points raised on both sides.

Mr. Loring's points were the following:

1. The libellants cannot hold either the vessel or the owners under the bills of lading, because the goods in question were not on board; and having insisted upon the master's signing such bills, are prevented thereby from resorting to the original contract of shipment.

2. The owners of the vessel were not common carriers.

3. The vessel is not liable in rem.

So far it has not been considered whether or not the libellants have a lien or privilege upon the vessel for the loss they have suffered.

The inquiry has been as to the personal liability of the owners. If the court shall be of opinion that the owners are not liable on the bill of lading, because the goods were not on board; or on the original parol contract, because that was superseded by the written contract in the bill of lading, which the libellants elected to take; or, if bound by such contract, that the owners were private and not common carriers, and there is no proof of want of ordinary care-then it is unnecessary to inquire as to the liability of the vessel, it being well settled, that except in cases of bottomry and salvage, there can be no claim against the thing unless there is a personal liability on the part of its owners.

In the case of the Druid, 1 W. Rob., 399, Dr. Lushington says: 'No suit could ever be maintained against a ship where the owners were not themselves personally liable, or where the personal liability had not been given up, as in bottomry bonds.' And the rule as stated by him, to this extent, is expressly recognised and affirmed by this court in the case of the Freeman, 18 Howard, 189.

If on any ground the court should be of opinion that the owners could not be held personally liable for the loss suffered by the libellants, it necessarily follows that the vessel is not liable, and that this suit cannot be maintained. It is absolutely essential that such personal liability must exist in order to create a charge in rem.

If, however, the court should be satisfied that a personal liability does exist on the part of the owners, it does not follow as of course that the vessel is liable.

The libellants must go further, and show that the policy of the maritime law secures their claim and gives it a preference over others, by creating a privilege against the vessel. The common law gives no such preference.

There is not even a presumption that the vessel is liable because the owners are. The liabilities depend upon different grounds, and are not at all reciprocal. In this court, of late years, the tendency has been very strong to limit maritime privileges, and to deny their existence in cases where they had before been recognised. In the case of the Yankee Blade, 19 Howard, 82, they are said to be stricti juris, and not to be encouraged. In Thomas v. Osborn, 19 Howard, 22, and Reed v. Pratt, 19 Howard, 359, the liens of material men are confined to cases of necessity. A recent rule of the court prohibits the enforcement of domestic liens by the District Courts. The privilege of the ship-owner upon goods for freight is apt to be treated as a mere common-law lien, depending upon possession; and in People's Ferry Co. v. Beers, 20 How., 401,) it is said that 'liens on vessels encumber commerce, and are discouraged.'

As in all of these cases there would exist a personal liability on the part of the owners, it is very plain that that does not necessarily establish a privilege against the ship.

Mr. Andros's propositions were the following:

1. That between the libellant and the master of the vessel against which a lien is so sought to be enforced in the present case there was a valid contract of affreightment, which is binding upon the claimant and owners thereof.

2. That the owners of said vessel are liable as common carriers, and that such liability commenced immediately the master received the libellant's merchandise for transportation.

3. That the owners being liable in damages for the non-delivery of the libellant's merchandise, which had been by his agents delivered to and received by the master of the said vessel for transportation, the ship in specie is also liable, and that this liability arises from the contract of affreightment, which has been executed on the part of the libellant.

4. That the reception and lading of the libellant's merchandise on board of the lighter by the master of the vessel, for the purpose of transporting it to the same, was a sufficient performance of the libellant's part of the contract of affreightment to enable him to hold the ship in specie as security for the due performance of the master's part of the agreement.

Mr. Justice NELSON delivered the opinion of the court.


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).