Express Company v. Caldwell

Decision Date01 October 1874
Citation88 U.S. 264,21 Wall. 264,22 L.Ed. 556
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

Caldwell sued the Southern Express Company in the court below, as a common carrier, for its failure to deliver at New Orleans a package received by it on the 23d day of April, 1862, at Jackson, Tennessee; places the transit between which requires only about one day. The company pleaded that when the package was received 'it was agreed between the company and the plaintiff, and made one of the express conditions upon which the package was received that the company should not be held liable for any loss of, or damage to, the package whatever, unless claim should be made therefor within ninety days from its deliverty to it.' The plea further averred that no claim was made upon the defendant, or upon any of its agents, until the year 1868, more than ninety days after the delivery of the package to the company, and not until the present suit was brought. To the plea thus made the plaintiff demurred generally, and the Circuit Court sustained the demurrer, giving judgment thereon against the company. Whether this judgment was correct was the question now to be passed on here.

Mr. C. A. Seward, for the company, plaintiff in error, citing several cases,1 as analogous, and more or less bearing on the points, relied especially on Weir v. The Adams Express Company, an unreported case, A.D. 1864, precisely in point, in the old District Court for the City and County of Philadelphia, a court which, though of inferior rank in that its jurisdiction was local, was of high authority in view of its large and weighty concerns, and of the character of its judges, among whom were included at the time Justices Sharswood, Hare, and others, of wide reputation for judgment and learning in the law.

Mr. S. R. Bond, contra, sought to apply to the case the general principles laid down by this court, as to the high obligations of carriers and their inability to absolve themselves by contract from negligence, in Railroad Company v. Lockwood,2 and relied especially, as more particularly applicable, on The Southern Express Company v. Caperton,3 a case in the Supreme Court of Alabama, and on The Southern Express Company v. Barnes, in the Supreme Court of Georgia, and reported in 36 Georgia, page 532.

Mr. Justice STRONG delivered the opinion of the court.

Notwithstanding the great rigor with which courts of law have always enforced the obligations assumed by common carriers, and notwithstanding the reluctance with which modifications of that responsibility, imposed upon them by public policy, have been allowed, it is undoubtedly true that special contracts with their employers limiting their liability are recognized as valid, if in the judgment of the courts they are just and reasonable—if they are not in conflict with sound legal policy. The contract of a common carrier ordinarily is an assumption by him of the exact duty which the law affixes to the relation into which he enters when he undertakes to carry. That relation the law regards as substantially one of insurance against all loss or damage except such as results from what is denominated the act of God or of the public enemy. But the severe operation of such a rule in some cases has led to a relaxation of its stringency, when the consignor and the carrier agree to such a relaxation. All the modern authorities concur in holding that, to a certain extent, the extreme liability exacted by the common law originally may be limited be express contract. The difficulty is in determining to what extent, and here the authorities differ. Certainly it ought not to be admitted that a common carrier can be relieved from the full measure of that responsibility which ordinarily attends his occupation without a clear and express stipulation to that effect obtained by him from his employer. And even when such a stipulation has been obtained the court must be able to see that it is not unreasonable. Common carriers do not deal with their employers on equal terms. There is, in a very important sense, a necessity for their employment. In many cases they are corporations chartered for the promotion of the public convenience. They have possession of the railroads, canals, and means of transportation on the rivers. They can and they do carry at much cheaper rates than those which private carriers must of necessity demand. They have on all important routes supplanted private carriers. In fact they are without competition, except as between themselves, and that they are thus is in most cases a consequence of advantages obtained from the public. It is, therefore, just that they are not allowed to take advantage of their powers, and of the necessities of the public to exact exemptions from that measure of duty which public policy demands. But that which was public poliey a hundred years ago has undergone changes in the progress of material and social civilization. There is less danger than there was of collusion with highwaymen. Intelligence is more rapidly diffused. It is more easy to trace a consignment than it was. It is more difficult to conceal a fraud. And, what is of equal importance, the business of common carriers has been immensely increased and subdivided. The carrier who receives goods is very often not the one who is expected to deliver them to the ultimate consignees. He is but one link of a chain. Thus his hazard is greatly increased. His employers demand that he shall be held responsible, not merely for his own acts and omissions, and those of his agents, but for those of other carriers whom he necessarily employs for completing the transit of the goods. Hence, as we have said, it is now the settled law that the responsibility of a common carrier may be limited by an express agreement made with his employer at the time of his accepting goods for transportation, provided the limitation be such as the law can recognize as reasonable and not inconsistent with sound public policy. This subject has been so fully considered of late in this court that it is needless to review the authorities at large. In York Company v. The Central Railroad Company,4 it is ruled that the common law liability of a common carrier may be limited and qualified by special contract with the owner, provided such special contract do not attempt to cover losses by negligence or misconduct. And in a still later case, Railroad Company v. Lockwood,5 where the decisions are extensively reviewed, the same doctrine is asserted. The latter case, it is true, involved mainly an inquiry into the reasonableness of an exception stipulated for, but it unequivocally accepted the rule asserted in the first-mentioned case. The question, then, which is presented to us by this record is, whether the stipulation asserted in the defendant's plea is a reasonable one, not inconsistent with sound public policy.

It may be remarked, in the first place, that the stipulation is not a conventional limitation of the right of the carrier's employer to sue. He is left at liberty to sue at any time within the period fixed by the statute of limitations. He is only required to make his claim within ninety days, in season to enable the carrier to ascertain what the facts are, and having made his claim, he may delay his suit.

It may also be remarked that the contract is not a stipulation for exemption from responsibility for the defendants' negligence, or for that of their servants. If is freely conceded that had it been such, it would have been against the policy of the law, and inoperative. Such was our opinion...

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