Missouri Pacific Railroad Company v. Elmore Stahl

Citation84 S.Ct. 1142,12 L.Ed.2d 194,377 U.S. 134
Decision Date04 May 1964
Docket NumberNo. 292,292
PartiesMISSOURI PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, Petitioner, v. ELMORE & STAHL
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

See 84 S.Ct. 1880.

Thurmand Arnold, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

John C. North, Jr., Corpus Christi, Tex., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether a common carrier which has exercised reasonable care and has complied with the instructions of the shipper, is nonetheless liable to the shipper for spoilage in transit of an interstate shipment of perishable commodities, when the carrier fails to prove that the cause of the spoilage was the natural tendency of the commodities to deteriorate. The petitioner is a common carrier and the respondent is a fruit shipper. The respondent sued the petitioner in a Texas court to recover for d mage to a carload of honeydew melons shipped from Rio Grande City, Texas, to Chicago, Illinois.1

In accordance with Texas practice, special issues were submitted to the jury at the close of the evidence. The jury affirmatively found that the melons were in good condition at the time they were turned over to the carrier in Rio Grande City, but that they arrived in damaged condition at their destination in Chicago. The jury also affirmatively found that the petitioner and its connect- ing carriers performed all required transportation services without negligence. The jury were instructed that 'inherent vice' means 'any existing defects, diseases, decay or the inherent nature of the commodity which will cause it to deteriorate with a lapse of time.' They answered 'No' to a special issue asking whether they found from a preponderance of the evidence that the condition of the melons on arrival in Chicago was due solely to an inherent vice, as so defined, 'at the time the melons were received by the carrier at Rio Grande City, Texas, for transportation.'2

On the basis of these special findings, the trial judge entered judgment for damages against the carrier. The judgment was affirmed by the Texas Court of Civil Appeals, 360 S.W.2d 839, and by the Texas Supreme Court, upon the ground that, as a matter of federal law, 'the carrier may not exonerate itself by showing that all transportation services were performed without negligence but must go further and establish that the loss or damage was caused by one of the four excepted perils recognized at common law.' 368 S.W.2d 99, 100. The court concluded, in view of the jury's findings, that, although '(a) common carrier is not responsible for spoilage or decay which is shown to be due entirely to the inherent nature of the goods, * * * petitioner has not established that the damage in this case was caused solely by natural deterioration.' Id. 368 S.W.2d at 103. We granted certiorari, 375 U.S. 811, 84 S.Ct. 72, 11 L.Ed.2d 47, because of a conflict with an almost contemporaneous decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit holding that 'in the case of perishable goods the burden upon the carrier is not to prove that the damage resulted from the inherent vice of the goods, but to prove its own compliance with the rules of the tariff and the shipper's instructions.'3 For the reasons which follow, we affirm the judgment before us.

The parties agree that the liability of a carrier for damage to an interstate shipment is a matter of federal law controlled by federal statutes and decisions. The Carmack Amendment of 1906,4 § 20(11) of the Interstate Commerce Act, makes carriers liable 'for the full actual loss, damage, or injury * * * caused by' them to property they transport and declares unlawful and void any contract, regulation, tariff, or other attempted means of limiting this liability.5 It is settled that this statute has two undisputed effects crucial to the issue in this case: First, the statute codifies the common-law rule that a carrier, though not an absolute insurer, is liable for damage to goods transported by it unless it can show that the damage was caused by '(a) the act of God; (b) the public enemy; (c) the act of the shipper himself; (d) public authority; (e) or the inherent vice or nature of the goods.' Bills of Lading, 52 I.C.C. 671, 679; Chesapeake & O. Ry. Co. v. A. F. Thompson Mfg. Co., 270 U.S. 416, 421—423, 46 S.Ct. 318, 319—320, 70 L.Ed. 659; Adams Express Co. v. Croninger, 226 U.S. 491, 509, 33 S.Ct. 148, 153, 57 L.Ed. 314; Hall & Long v. Railroad Companies, 13 Wall. 367, 372, 20 L.Ed. 594. Second, the statute declares unlawful and void any 'rule, regulation, or other limitation of any character whatsoever' purporting to limit this liability. 6 See Cincinnati N.O. & Texas Pac. R. Co. v. Rankin, 241 U.S. 319, 326, 36 S.Ct. 555, 557—558, 60 L.Ed. 1022; Boston & M.R.R. v. Piper, 246 U.S. 439, 445, 38 S.Ct. 354, 355, 62 L.Ed. 820. Accordingly, under federal law, in an action to recover from a carrier for damage to a shipment, the shipper establishes his prima facie case when he shows delivery in good condition, arrival in damaged condition, and the amount of damages. Thereupon, the burden of proof is upon the carrier to show both that it was free from negligence and that the damage to the cargo was due to one of the excepted causes relieving the carrier of liability. Galveston, H. & S.A.R. Co. v. Wallace, 223 U.S. 481, 492, 32 S.Ct. 205, 207, 56 L.Ed. 516; Chicago & E.I.R. Co. v. Collins Co., 249 U.S. 186, 191, 39 S.Ct. 189, 190, 63 L.Ed. 552; Chesapeake & O. Ry. Co. v. A. F. Thompson Mfg. Co., 270 U.S., 416, 420—423, 46 S.Ct. 318, 319—320, 70 L.Ed. 659; Thompson v. James G. McCarrick Co., 5 Cir., 205 F.2d 897, 900.

The disposition of this case in the Texas courts was in accordance with these established principles. It is apparent that the jury were unable to determine the cause of the damage to the melons. '(T)he decay of a perishable cargo is not a cause; it is an effect. It may be the result of a number of causes, for some of which, such as the inherent defects of the cargo * * * the carrier is not liable.'7 But the jury refused to find that the carrier had borne its burden of establishing that the damaged condition of the melons was due solely to 'inherent vice,' as defined in the instruction of the trial judge—including 'the inherent nature of the commondity which will cause it to deteriorate with a lapse of time.' The petitioner does not challenge the accuracy of the trial judge's instruction or the jury's finding.8 Its position is simply that if goods are perishable, and the nature of the damage is spoilage, and the jury affirmatively find that the carrier was free from negligence and performed the transportation services as required by the shipper, then the law presumes that the cause of the spoilage was the natural tendency of perishables to deteriorate e en though the damage might, in fact, have resulted from other causes, such as the acts of third parties,9 for which no exception from carrier liability is provided. Consequently, it is argued, the question of 'inherent vice' should not have been submitted to the jury, since the carrier in such a case does not bear the affirmative burden of establishing that the damage was caused by the inherent vice exception of the common law.

The petitioner appears to recognize that, except in the case of loss arising from injury to livestock in transit—a well-established exception to the general common-law rule based on the peculiar propensity of animals to injure themselves and each other10—no distinction was made in the earlier federal cases between perishables and non-perishables. It is said, however, that the 'large-scale development, in relatively recent years, of long distance transportation of fresh fruit and vegetables in interstate commerce has led to the evolution' of a new federal rule governing the carrier's liability for spoilage and decay of perishables, similar to the 'livestock rule,' which absolves the carrier from liability upon proof that the carrier has exercised reasonable care, and has complied with the shipper's instructions.11

We are aware of no such new rule of federal law. As recently as 1956, in Secretary of Agriculture v. United States, 350 U.S. 162, 76 S.Ct. 244, 100 L.Ed. 173, this Court gave no intimation that the general rule placing on the carrier the affirmative burden of bringing the cause of the damage within one of the specified exceptions no longer applied to cases involving perishable commodities.12

Nor do Rules 130 and 135 of the Perishable Protective Tariff, relied upon by petitioner, reflect any such change in the federal law, when read in the light of the history underlying their adoption in 1920 by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Rule 130, declaring that a carrier does not 'undertake to overcome the inherent tendency of perishable goods to deteriorate or decay,'13 merely restates the common-law rule that a carrier shall not be held liable in the absence of negligence for damage resulting solely from an inherent vice or defect in the goods. And Rule 135, declaring that the carrier shall not be 'liable for any loss or damage that may occur because of the acts of the shipper or because the directions of the shipper were incomplete, inadequate or ill-conceived,'14 me ely reiterates the common-law and bill-of-lading rule that the carrier shall not be liable, in the absence of negligence, for the 'act or default of the shipper or owner.' Neither of these rules refers to the presumptions or burdens of proof imposed by the common law, and it is clear that it was not the intention of the Commission in approving these rules to modify or reduce the common-law liability of a carrier. Indeed, the Commission stated at the time these rules were adopted in 1920 that 'such declarations can have no controlling effect, for the carrier's liability for loss or damage is determined by the law. Nothing can be added to or subtracted from the law by...

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