Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Limited v. William Mellor

Decision Date25 May 1914
Docket NumberNo. 798,798
Citation58 L.Ed. 1171,233 U.S. 718,34 S.Ct. 754
PartiesOCEANIC STEAM NAVIGATION COMPANY, LIMITED, as Owner of the Steamship Titanic, v. WILLIAM J. MELLOR and Harry Anderson
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Charles C. Burlingham, Norman B. Beecher, and J. Parker Kirlin for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 719-721 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Frederick M. Brown, George Whitefield Betts, Jr., Francis H. Kinnicutt, Kenneth Gardner, and John C. Prizer for William J. Mellor and Harry Anderson.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 721-730 intentionally omitted]

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Messrs. Benjamin Micou, Richard P. Whiteley, George S. Graham, Howard S. Harrington, Henry J. Bigham, D. Roger Englar, Oscar R. Houston, and A. Gordon Murray for other claimants.

Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:

This case comes here upon a certificate from the circuit court of appeals. The facts stated are as follows, with slight abbreviation. The Titanic, a British steamship, which had sailed from Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage for New York, collided on the high seas with an iceberg, on April 14, and sank the next morning, with the loss of many lives and total loss of vessel, cargo, personal effects, mails, and everything connected with the ship except certain lifeboats. The owner, alleging that the loss was occasioned and incurred without its privity or knowledge, filed a petition for limitation of its liability under the laws of the United States (Rev. Stat. §§ 4283-4285, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 2943, 2944), and Admiralty Rules 54 and 56. Before it did so a number of actions to recover for loss of life and personal injuries resulting from the disaster had been brought against the petitioners in Federal and state courts. The persons who sustained loss were of many different nationalities, including citizens of the United States. Mellor, a British subject, excepted to the petition, on the ground that 'the acts by reason of which and for which [the petitioner] claims limitation of liability took place on board a British registered vessel on the high seas,' and therefore the law of the United States would not apply. Anderson, a citizen of the United States, excepted on the ground that the law of the United States

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could not and that of England was not shown to apply. The district court dismissed the petition as to these two. 209 Fed. 501. The petitioner appealed, and the circuit court of appeals certified the following questions:

A. Whether, in the case of a disaster upon the high seas, where (1) only a single vessel of British nationality is concerned and there are claimants of many different nationalities; and where (2) there is nothing before the court to show what, if any, is the law of the foreign country to which the vessel belongs, touching the owner's liability for such disaster,—such owner can maintain a proceeding under §§ 4283-4285, U. S. Revised Statutes (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 2943, 2944), and the 54th and 56th Rules in Admiralty?

B. Whether if, in such a case, it appears that the law of the foreign country to which the vessel belongs makes provision for the limitation of the vessel owner's liability, upon terms and conditions different from those prescribed in the statutes of this country, the owners of such foreign vessel can maintain a proceeding in the courts of the United States, under said statutes and rules?

In the event of the answer to question B being in the affirmative,

C. Will the courts of the United States in such proceeding enforce the law of the United States or of the foreign country in respect to the amount of such owner's liability?

The general proposition that a foreign ship may resort to the courts of the United States for a limitation of liability under Rev. Stat. § 4283 is established. The Scotland (National Steam Nav. Co. v. Dyer) 105 U. S. 24, 26 L. ed. 1001; La Bourgogne (Deslions v. La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique) 210 U. S. 95, 52 L. ed. 973, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 664. These were cases respectively of collisions between American and English and English and French vessels. See also The Chattahoochee, 173 U. S. 540, 43 L. ed. 801, 19 Sup. Ct. Rep. 491. The Germanic (Oceanic Steam Nav. Co. v. Aitken) 196 U. S. 589, 598, 49 L. ed. 610, 614, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 317. But it is argued that there is an exception in a case like this, where only a single foreign ship is concerned. The argument is supported by a quotation from Mr. Justice Bradley in The Scotland, to the effect that if a collision occurred

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on the high seas between two vessels belonging to the same nation, the court would determine the controversy by the law of their flag. For, it is said, if the foreign law would govern in that case, it must govern in this, and therefore, at least, in the absence of allegations bringing the case within the foreign law, the petition must be dismissed. If, in the observation referred to, Mr. Justice Bradley had been speaking of proceedings of this class, it would be important, as sanctioning the view that the United States courts offered a forum concursus for the administration of other systems as well as of our own; but we apprehend that he was speaking of an ordinary collision case, and merely indicating that, in such a case, the principle usually governing foreign torts would apply. That principle may be accepted as equally governing here, but it does not carry us far.

It is true that the act of Congress does not control or profess to control the conduct of a British ship on the high seas. See American Banana Co. v. United Fruit...

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