Humphrey-Cornell Co. v. Hines

Decision Date30 November 1921
Citation97 Conn. 21,115 A. 561
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesHUMPHREY-CORNELL CO. v. HINES, Director General of Railroads, et al.

Appeal from Superior Court, New London County; John W. Banks, Judge.

Action by the Humphrey-Cornell Company against Walter D. Hines Director General of Railroads, and another, to recover damages for the loss of goods shipped in interstate commerce. Tried to the court and judgment rendered for defendants, from which plaintiff appeals. No error.

The Harbauer Company of Toledo sold the shipment of catsup in question to the plaintiff for delivery at New London and a similar shipment to Saltman Bros. of Bridgeport for delivery there, and on November 13, 1916, loaded both shipments into a car provided by the Michigan Central Railroad. The Michigan Central Railroad delivered said car to the Toledo, St. Louis & Western Railroad, which company, on November 13, 1916 issued a bill of lading for each shipment. The bill covering the shipment in question provided:

" Suits for loss, damage or delay shall be instituted only within two years and one day after delivery of the property, or in case of failure to make delivery, then within two years and one day after a reasonable time for delivery has elapsed."

On November 14, 1916, the Toledo, St. Louis & Western Railroad issued a waybill designating the car, describing the consignee as Saltman Bros., Bridgeport, and making no reference to plaintiff's shipment. Pursuant to railroad practice, the waybill, which serves as directions to crews handling the shipment, accompanied the car to and arrived with it at Bridgeport on November 21 1916. The New Haven Railroad, not knowing that the car contained plaintiff's shipment, notified Saltman Bros. of its arrival, and placed it on a side track for delivery on November 22, 1916. Saltman Bros. unloaded and released the car empty on November 23, 1916. On December 28, 1916, the Toledo, St. Louis & Western Railroad issued a waybill describing plaintiff's shipment as having been sent ahead in said car on November 13, 1916. The waybill arrived at the New London office of the New Haven Railroad, which, on January 2, 1917, billed the plaintiff for the freight, who paid it but the shipment in question was never delivered. In March, 1917, plaintiff filed a claim for loss with the New Haven Railroad. From March, 1917, to April, 1919, plaintiff and the New Haven Railroad, or Director General of Railroads corresponded concerning the claim. In July, 1918, the Director General of Railroads notified the plaintiff his final decision would probably favor rejection of the claim. On January 27, 1919, the Director General declined the claim, and in affirming his decision on April 14, 1919, the first specific reference to the two-year and one-day limitation was made. The plaintiff, an experienced shipper, was at all times aware of and bound by the bill of lading limitation and was at no time misled by the defendants whose declination of the claim was based in part upon a bona fide doubt as to its merit. The plaintiff failed to bring its action within the prescribed period.

To the complaint defendants pleaded three defenses: A denial, that it never received the goods, and, as a third defense, that the action was not brought within the two years and a day limited by the bill of lading. The plaintiff in reply alleged that the limitation clause was unreasonable and had been so held by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The court found the limitation reasonable and rendered judgment for the defendants solely upon the third defense, that the action was not brought within the time limited by the bill of lading. Other facts are stated in the opinion.

Arthur T. Keefe, of New London, for appellant.

James W. Carpenter, of New Haven, for appellees.

GAGER J.

It is conceded that the bill of lading under which the goods were shipped was the uniform bill of lading. This bill, so far as the condition in question is concerned, was in the form prescribed by the Interstate Commerce Commission in connection with the elaborate report of the Commission upon bills of lading. Bills of Lading, 52 Interst. Com. Com'n R. 671, dated April 14, 1919. Among the conditions is the same condition upon which this case was decided in the trial court and as set out in the statement of facts. The Commission in this report explicitly finds this condition to be just and reasonable and prescribes it in the form of domestic bill of lading then adopted by it. This same provision was contained in the uniform bill of lading submitted to the Commission as dated April 10 to 15, 1916. The Cummins Act of March 4, 1915, contains this clause:

" Provided further, that it shall be unlawful for any such common carrier to provide by rule, contract, regulation, or otherwise a shorter period *** for the institution of suits than two years." Act of March 4, 1915, 38 U.S. Stats. at Large, 1196 (U. S. Comp. Stats. vol. 8, § 8604a).

We agree with the defendants that the limitation prescribed in this bill recognizes the legality of such a contract limiting the time within which an action may be brought and that two years is not necessarily unreasonable.

This Cummins Act is the first federal statute limiting the period within which an action should be brought. Prior to the act the parties to the bill of lading might stipulate the period, and such stipulation, if reasonable, was upheld. In Texas & Pacific Ry. v. Leatherwood, 250 U.S. 478, 39 Sup.Ct. 517, 63 L.Ed. 1096, six months after the loss, and in Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. Harriman, 227 U.S. 657, 33 Sup.Ct. 397, 57 L.Ed. 690, ninety days after the loss, was held reasonable. Various periods have been recognized as reasonable in such contracts, as one year, six months, ninety days, sixty days. See 10 C.J. note 18a, p. 344. See, also, Mason v. M. C. R. Co., 119 Me. 195, 110 A. 425, decided in 1920.

We start then with a state of the law in November, 1916, the date of the bill of lading under which the present claim is made, under which a bill of lading was then in use as a uniform bill containing a two-year and one-day limitation for the bringing of an action, recognized as valid by the Cummins Act, actually in general use at that time and so remaining, and finally in April, 1919, declared to be just and reasonable by the Interstate Commerce Commission and prescribed in its approved form of bill of lading. 52 Interst. Com. Com'n R. 671, supra.

The contract here in question was made November 13, 1916, and the rights of the parties must be determined on the basis of the contract as it then stood. It has been held that the Cummins Act does not apply to cases arising before its adoption. Nashville, etc., R. R. Co. v. Truitt Co., 17 Ga.App. 236, 86 S.E. 421. If the act of Congress is not retroactive, much less can a regulation of the Commission be retroactive. Under the third defense two questions arise: first, what was a reasonable time for the delivery of the goods, which by the contract was left open for judicial determination; and, second, was the two-year and one-day period from the lapse of this reasonable time allowed by the contract for delivery a reasonable time within which suit must be brought? The court held that six months was a reasonable time within which delivery should have been made and that the two years and one day from the expiration of the reasonable time for delivery prescribed in the bill of lading was a reasonable limitation of time within which an action should be brought.

The plaintiff assails both of these conclusions. A careful consideration of the reasons of appeal and the plaintiff's brief discloses, however, that the real objection applies to the court's determination of what the reasonable time for delivery should be. The shipment was made November 13, 1916. The six months allowed by the court as reasonable for delivery expired May 13, 1917. Two years and a day carries us to May 14, 1919. The...

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    ... ... Maine R. R., 227 Mass. 307, 116 N.E. 475; ... Perkins v. New York, N.H. and H. R. Co., ... 232 Mass. 336, 122 N.E. 306; Humphrey-Cornell Co. v ... Hines, 97 Conn. 21, 115 A. 561. The claim is made ... that the Leatherwood Case does not have the force of ... authority, as the ... ...
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    ...et al., 261 U. S. 133, 43 S. Ct. 259, 67 L. Ed. 571; Decker & Sons v. Director General, 55 I. C. C. 435; Humphrey-Cornell Co. v. Hines, Director General, 97 Conn. 21, 115 A. 561;Shroyer v. Chicago, R. I. & G. Ry. Co., 111 Tex. 24, 222 S. W. 1095, 226 S. W. 140;Spartan Mills v. Davis, Direct......
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    ... ... Co. v. Wolf (1923), ... 261 U.S. 133, 43 S.Ct. 259, 67 L.Ed. 571; Decker & Sons v. Director General (1919), 55 I. C. C ... 433; Humphrey-Cornell Co. v. Hines (1921), ... 97 Conn. 21, 115 A. 561; Shroyer v. Chicago, ... etc., R. Co. (1920), 111 Tex. 24, 222 S.W. 1095; ... Spartan Mills v ... ...
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