456 U.S. 336 (1982), 81-622, Southern Pacific Transportation Co. v. Commercial Metals Co.

Docket Nº:No. 81-622
Citation:456 U.S. 336, 102 S.Ct. 1815, 72 L.Ed.2d 114
Party Name:Southern Pacific Transportation Co. v. Commercial Metals Co.
Case Date:April 27, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 336

456 U.S. 336 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 1815, 72 L.Ed.2d 114

Southern Pacific Transportation Co.

v.

Commercial Metals Co.

No. 81-622

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 1982

Argued March 31, 1982

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent, as consignor, shipped goods by rail to a third party under uniform [102 S.Ct. 1817] straight bills of lading prescribed by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Each bill provided that the consignor was liable for freight charges unless it signed a statement in the bill that "[t]he carrier shall not make delivery of this shipment without payment of freight and all other lawful charges." Respondent failed to execute this "nonrecourse" clause in the bills of lading. Petitioner, a common carrier by rail, delivered the first shipment to the consignee without collecting the freight charges in advance and without investigating the consignee's credit standing. Petitioner delivered the other shipments only after receiving checks from the consignee, but the checks were dishonored by the consignee's bank for insufficient funds. After unsuccessfully attempting to collect the unpaid freight charges from the consignee, petitioner requested that respondent pay the charges and, when payment was not made, filed suit against respondent in Federal District Court. The court ruled that, although petitioner had established a prima facie case for the recovery of the freight charges, respondent had established a valid equitable defense by showing that petitioner had failed to comply with the ICC's credit regulations. These regulations, promulgated pursuant to § 3(2) of the Interstate Commerce Act, did not allow for delivery of freight on credit for more than five days. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Petitioner's violation of the credit regulations does not bar its collection of lawful freight charges from respondent. Pp. 342-352.

(a) Petitioner established a prima facie case of respondent's liability for the freight charges by proving that respondent failed to sign the nonrecourse clause in the bills of lading. The bill of lading is the basic transportation contract between the shipper-consignor and the carrier, and, unless the bill provides to the contrary, the consignor remains primarily liable for the freight charges. Thus, by failing to execute the nonrecourse provision, respondent continued to be primarily liable. Pp. 342-344.

(b) Petitioner's violation of the credit regulations did not provide respondent with an equitable affirmative defense to petitioner's prima facie

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case. Neither § 3(2) of the Act nor the regulations themselves intimate that a carrier's violation of the credit rules automatically precludes it from collecting the lawful freight charge. Nor does either contain any words of affirmative defense to a freight charge action. The history of the regulations further indicates that this silence was not inadvertent -- the intent of the rules was to protect carriers, not to penalize them. And public policy concerns disfavor judicial implication of affirmative defenses based on carrier violations of the credit regulations. The ICC has ample authority to police the credit practices of carriers, and thereby to deter improper practices, without the judicially created remedy of forfeiture of freight charges. Pp. 344-362.

641 F.2d 235, reversed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a common carrier's violation of credit regulations issued by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) bars the carrier's collection of a lawful freight charge from a shipper-consignor who, under the terms of the shipment's bill of lading, is primarily liable for the charge.

I

Petitioner Southern Pacific Transportation Company (SP) is a common carrier by rail. Respondent Commercial Metals Company (Metals), a Delaware corporation with principal

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place of business in Dallas, Tex., is in the business of buying and selling steel goods. Petitioner instituted this action [102 S.Ct. 1818] against respondent in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas to recover freight charges for three cars of steel cobble shipped by rail in 1974 from Detroit, Mich., to Alhambra, Cal.

Each of the three shipments was consigned by Metals to Penn Central Transportation Company, as initial carrier,1 under the uniform straight bill of lading prescribed by the ICC. Each bill of lading included a "nonrecourse" clause that the consignor might sign. That clause reads:

Subject to Section 7 of Conditions, if the shipment is to be delivered to the consignee without recourse on the consignor, the consignor shall sign the following statement: The carrier shall not make delivery of this shipment without payment of freight and all other lawful charges.2

In each instance, respondent Metals, as consignor, failed to execute this nonrecourse clause. Metals, however, already had received payment for the goods prior to shipment. Tr. of Oral Arg. 5, 6, 24-25; Brief for Respondent 21.

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The first of the three cars was tendered to Penn Central at Detroit on April 11, 1974, for transportation to Carco Steel Corporation (Carco), as consignee, in Alhambra. SP released the car to Carco on April 25 without collecting the freight charge in advance of delivery. On the same day, however, SP mailed to Carco a bill for $4,634.11, the correct amount of the charge. Carco was not a credit patron of SP, and had never applied to SP for credit. SP never before had made a delivery to Carco. Nevertheless, the carrier made no investigation of Carco's credit standing.

The second and third shipments took place on May 2, 1974, when Metals consigned two other cars of cobble to Penn Central for transportation to Carco. SP delivered the cars to Carco on May 16. This time, SP released the cars only after receiving checks from Carco in the respective amounts of $5,761.79 and $2,383.67 for the freight charges. The larger amount was correct, but the smaller check should have been for $3,283.66 and thus was $900 short.3 On May 20, SP issued freight bills in the correct amounts to Carco. The two checks were dishonored by Carco's bank for insufficient funds.

In August, 1974, after efforts to collect the unpaid freight charges from Carco had proved fruitless, SP filed suit against Carco in a California state court. Attempts to serve he summons and complaint were unsuccessful.

On December 17, 1976, more than 30 months after the shipments, SP notified Metals of Carco's failure to pay the freight charges. SP requested that Metals, as the consignor who had failed to execute the nonrecourse provision in the bills of lading, pay the $13,679.56 total charges in satisfaction of its primary liability for the three shipments. This was the first notice to Metals that the freight charges had not [102 S.Ct. 1819] been collected

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from Carco. When payment was not forthcoming, SP instituted the present action against Metals in federal court.

On this record, stipulated by the parties, the District Court ruled that SP had established a prima facie case for the recovery of the freight charges from Metals. It found the charges correct and in accord with applicable tariffs, and that no part of those charges had been paid. App. 22. "Absent a showing of valid and affirmative defenses," then, Metals was liable to the carrier. Id. at 23. The court rejected Metals' claim that the passage of time-barred SP's recovery; although Metals lacked notice until December, 1976, that the charges for the 1974 shipments had not been paid, the court noted that the applicable period of limitation was three years and that the carrier had been making efforts to locate Carco and to receive payment.

The District Court, however, went on to hold that Metals had established a valid equitable defense to SP's collection of the charges by showing that SP had failed to comply with the ICC's credit regulations promulgated pursuant to § 3(2) of the Interstate Commerce Act, 49 U.S.C. § 3(2).4 App. 23. See 49 CFR pt. 1320 (1981). The court was not persuaded by SP's suggestion that Metals had failed to avail itself of its contractual opportunity for exoneration afforded by the nonrecourse provision in the bills of lading. The court concluded:

The loss sustained by [SP] was due entirely to its own fault and negligence by failing to take the proper credit precautions when it delivered the goods to Carco. . . . I think that it is fundamentally unfair and inequitable for the defendant in this case to pay for the gross negligence of the plaintiff.

App. 24. Accordingly, judgment was entered for Metals. Id. at 26.

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed that judgment. 641 F.2d 235 (1981). Like the District Court, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that, in the absence of a valid defense, Metals must be held liable to SP for the freight charges. Id. at 236. The court felt, however, that § 3(2) of the Act, the payment before delivery provision, provided a barrier to the carrier's collection of the charges from the consignor.5 The implementing regulation,6 which modified the statutory mandate by allowing for delivery of freight on credit for up to five days, nevertheless was "quite strict." Ibid. Thus, Metals could assert...

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