Louisville Co v. Central Iron Coal Co, 198

Decision Date05 May 1924
Docket NumberNo. 198,198
Citation265 U.S. 59,44 S.Ct. 441,68 L.Ed. 900
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Homer W. Davis, of Chicago, Ill., and Alexander Britton, of Washington, D. C., for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 60-62 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Harry A. Jones, of Washington, Pa., and Allan C. Rearick and Albert Chester Travis, both of New York City, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In January, 1917, the Central Iron & Coal Company sold Tutwiler & Brooks ten carloads of coke to be delivered f. o. b. cars at the seller's plant in Holt, Ala. Before delivery by the seller, the purchasers sold the coke to the Great Western Smelters Corporation of Mayer, Ariz. Thereafter, under instructions from Tutwiler & Brooks, and upon their agreement to pay the freight, the Central Company delivered, at its plant, the cars of coke to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, directed shipment thereof to Mayer over that railroad and connecting lines, and took bills of lading which it delivered immediately to Tutwiler & Brooks. That firm made a draft for the purchase price on the Smelters Corporation, with bills of lading attached. The corporation paid the draft, received the bills of lading, and, upon surrendering them to the delivering carrier and payment to it of the freight demanded, obtained possession of the coke. The amount of the freight then demanded and paid was $5,082.15. The freight legally payable, according to the tariff, was $8,545.61.

The undercharge as apparently not discovered until January, 1920. The Louisville & Nashville then made demand upon the Central Company for the amount ($3,463.46). Payment being refused, this action to recover it was brought in the federal court for the Northern District of Alabama, Western Division. Each party requested a directed verdict. It was directed for the defendant, judgment entered thereon was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals (284 Fed. 250), and the case is here on writ of error under section 241 of the Judicial Code (Comp. St. § 1218). Most of the facts were agreed. The bills of lading acknowledged receipt of the coke from the Central Company, stated that the coke was 'consigned to order of Tutwiler & Brooks, destination Mayer, Arizona, * * * notify Great Western Smelters Corporation,' and provided, among other so-called conditions, that 'the owner or consignee shall pay the freight, and average, if any, * * * and, if required, shall pay the same before delivery.'1 There was no suggestion that Tutwiler & Brooks were insolvent. Whether collection could then have been made from the Smelters Corporation is a matter as to which there was conflicting evidence.2

The shipment being an interstate one, the freight rate was that stated in the tariff filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The amount of the freight charges legally payable was determined by applying this tariff rate to the actual weight. Thus they were fixed by law. No contract of the carrier could reduce the amount legally payable, or release from liability a shipper who had assumed an obligation to pay the charges. Nor could any act or omission of the carrier (except the running of the statute of limitations) estop or preclude it from enforcing payment of the full amount by a person liable therefor. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Ry. Co. v. Fink, 250 U. S. 577, 40 Sup. Ct. 27, 63 L. Ed. 1151; New York Central, etc., R. R. Co. v. York & Whitney Co., 256 U. S. 406, 41 Sup. Ct. 509, 65 L. Ed. 1016. Compare St. Louis Southwestern Ry. Co. v. Spring River Stone Co., 236 U. S. 718, 35 Sup. Ct. 456, 59 L. Ed. 805. But delivery of goods to a carrier for shipment does not, under the Interstate Commerce Act (Comp. St. § 8563 et seq.), impose upon a shipper an absolute obligation to pay the freight charges.3 The tariff did not provide when or by whom the payment should be made. As to these matters carrier and shipper were left free to contract, subject to the rule which prohibits discrimination.4 The carrier was at liberty to require prepayment of freight charges, or to permit that payment to be deferred until the goods reached the end of the transportation. Wadley Southern Ry. Co. v. Georgia, 235 U. S. 651, 656, 35 Sup. Ct. 214, 59 L. Ed. 405. Where payment is so deferred, the carrier may require that it be made before delivery of the goods, or concurrently with the delivery, or may permit it to be made later. Where the payment is deferred, the contract may provide that the shipper agrees absolutely to pay the charges, or it may provide merely that he shall pay if the consignee does not pay the charges demanded upon delivery of the goods, or the carrier may accept the goods for shipment solely on account of the consignee, and, knowing that the shipper is acting merely as agent for the consignee, may contract that only the latter shall be liable for the freight charges, or both the shipper and the consignee may be made liable. Nor does delivery of goods to a carrier necessarily import, under the general law, an absolute promise by the shipper to pay the freight charges. We must, therefore, determine what promise, if any, to pay freight charges was, in fact, made by the Central Company.

To ascertain what contract was entered into we look primarily to the bills of lading, bearing in mind that the instrument serves both as a receipt and as a contract.5 Ordinarily, the person from whom the goods are received for shipment assumes the obligation to pay the freight charges, and his obligation is ordinarily a primary one. This is true, even where the bill of lading contains, as here, a provision imposing liability upon the consignee; for the shipper is presumably the consignor, the transportation ordered by him is presumably on his own behalf, and a promise by him to pay therefor is inferred (that is, implied in fact), as a promise to pay for goods is implied, when one orders them from a dealer. But this inference may be rebutted, as in the case of other contracts. It may be shown, by the bill of lading or otherwise, that the shipper of the goods was not acting on his own behalf; that this fact was known by the carrier; that the parties intended not only that the consignee should assume an obligation to pay the freight charges, but that the shipper should not assume any liability whatsoever therefor;6 or that he should assume only a secondary liability. In this case, the bills of lading acknowledge receipt of the coke from the Central Company. But it did not sign them. Nor was it described therein as the consignor. There was no clause by which the shipper agrees expressly either to pay the freight charges or to guarantee their payment. The goods received were not declared to be deliverable to the Central Company's order. On the contrary, the form of the bills of lading indicated that it was neither the owner nor the person on whose behalf the shipment was being made, and that Tutwiler & Brooks were either the owners or the persons in whose behalf the shipment was being made. On these facts, the trial court was justified in finding that the Central Company did not assume the primary obligation to pay the freight charges.7

It is urged that, if the Central Company was not under a primary obligation to pay the freight charges, it was secondarily liable, because collection from the Smelters Corporation of the balance remaining due had become impossible before the undercharge was discovered. But the trial judge was not compelled so to find. There was evidence that such collection had not become impossible. Confessedly no effort was made to collect from it. Nor was any effort made to collect from Tutwiler & Brooks. Moreover, if a secondary obligation of the Central Company was to be implied from the fact of its causing the coke to be received for transportation, the promise was not necessarily one to pay at any time any freight charges which the carrier might find it impossible to collect from the consignee or his assign. The court might have concluded that it guaranteed merely that the consignee or his assign would accept the shipment. For, under the rule of the Fink Case, if a shipment is accepted, the consignee becomes liable, as a matter of law, for the full amount of the freight charges, whether they are demanded at the time of delivery, or not until later. His liability satisfies the requirements of the Interstate Commerce Act


1 The bills of lading also contained these clauses: 'If charges are to be prepaid, write or stamp here. Received $_____ to apply in prepayment of _____. To be prepaid, _____.' The blanks were not filled by writing or stamp. The form of bills of lading used was what is known as the standard form order bill of lading. But the goods shipped were made deliverable to the order of a named consignee. Compare Pere Marquette Ry. Co. v. French & Co., 254 U. S. 538, 539, 540, 41 Sup. Ct, 195, 65 L. Ed. 395.

2 The corporation was not then technically insolvent; that is, no proceeding in bankruptcy had been instituted by or against it, there was no outstanding unsatisfied execution, and the corporation...

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