Petition of Republic of France, 1870.

Decision Date09 March 1959
Docket NumberNo. 1870.,1870.
Citation171 F. Supp. 497
PartiesPetition of REPUBLIC OF FRANCE, as Owner, and of Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, as Agent, of THE Steamship GRANDCAMP, in a Cause of Exoneration from and Limitation of Liability.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas



Clarence S. Eastham, of Eastham, Dale & Forney, Houston, Tex., and Edwin Longcope, of Hill, Betts & Nash, New York City, for petitioners.

William B. Butler, U. S. Atty., and James E. Ross, Asst. U. S. Atty., Houston, Tex., and Dale M. Green, Dept. of Justice, Spokane, Wash., for claimant United States.

Preston Shirley, of McLeod, Mills, Shirley & Alexander, Galveston, Tex., for claimant Texas City Terminal Ry. Co.

CONNALLY, District Judge.

Statement of the Case

This is a proceeding by petitioners, who allege that they are the owner, and agent or operator of the S. S. Grandcamp, for exoneration from or limitation of liability resulting from the fire upon, and explosion of, that vessel while she was loading a cargo of Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate at Texas City, Texas, April 16, 1947. This was the now famous Texas City Disaster of April 16-17, 1947, wherein in excess of 500 persons lost their lives, some 3,000 received personal injuries, and tremendous property loss was suffered.

In connection therewith, I make the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

Findings of Fact

The Parties:

1. The petitioners are the Republic of France and the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique. First named petitioner is a political sovereign, and was owner of the S. S. Grandcamp on April 16, 1947, and for a matter of several months prior thereto. The second named petitioner (commonly known, and referred to hereafter, as the French Line) is a corporation organized under the laws of France, who operates vessels owned by the Republic of France under a contract (Contrat de Gerance), which is in evidence (Pet.Exh. 15). The French government owns in excess of eighty (80%) percent of the stock of the French Line, appoints a majority of its board of directors, and in effect dominates and controls its management and operations.

2. There were originally many hundreds of claimants in the action. Those who remain are the United States of America and a relatively few others. The United States is claimant in a dual capacity. As successor to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, it asserts a claim for loss of property in the amount of some $350,000. Far overshadowing this, however, it makes claim as assignee of many hundreds of claims for death, personal injury and property damage. These assignments were executed by the assignors in favor of the United States when, under the Texas City Relief Statute (Act Aug. 12, 1955, Chapter 864, Public Law 378, 84th Congress, 69 Stat. 707), the United States paid out approximately $16,000,000 to the victims of the disaster, or their beneficiaries. The United States seeks to recover not only what was paid, but asks recovery of the damages allegedly suffered by each of such assignors, in the amount of approximately $70,000,000.

3. In the initial stages of this proceeding, these assignors were likewise parties here, making claim in their own behalf, and in their own name, for the excess between the amount paid to them by the United States, and what they contended to be the extent of their damage. As the assignment in each instance was absolute and unqualified, these claimants were dismissed.

4. The claimants who remain (other than the United States) are those who did not accept under the Texas City Relief Statute, and did not assign to the government.

The Vessel:

5. The S. S. Grandcamp was an American built Liberty type cargo vessel 422.8 ft. in length, of 7,176 gross and 4,380 net tons registered. She was acquired by the Republic of France from the United States Maritime Commission December 12, 1946. She was delivered to the French Line December 18, 1946, at New York.

6. In connection with the transfer of ownership, the Grandcamp underwent certain repairs, and was extensively surveyed and inspected. She was classed highest rating for vessels of her type by the American Bureau of Shipping, and by Bureau Veritas.

7. The S. S. Grandcamp made her first sailing after transfer to the French on January 11, 1947, carrying a cargo of coal from Newport News, Virginia, to Rouen, France. She sailed from Rouen for Antwerp on January 23, 1947, where she loaded cargo, and sailed from Antwerp February 4, 1947, for South American, Caribbean and Gulf ports. She arrived at Texas City, Texas, April 11, 1947, and berthed at Pier O, for loading of some 2,700 tons of Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate (FGAN hereafter). Until her arrival at Texas City, her history while in French hands had been without incident.

Others, Not Parties to the Litigation:

8. Charles De Guillebon was Master of the Grandcamp, having assumed command January 14, 1947. His service with the French Line began April 3, 1925. Prior to that time, he had attended the French Merchant Marine Officer training schools, served an apprenticeship of two years at sea, and had been licensed as Lieutenant for long sea voyages. He served as subordinate officer aboard various vessels until promoted to Master, Third Class, on January 1, 1947. He was rated consistently high by the Masters under whom he served. He was 47 years old when he died at Texas City in the explosion.

9. E. S. Binnings, Inc. was general freight agent for the French Line in all South Atlantic and Gulf ports, and had been for thirteen years prior to the disaster. Binnings was authorized to procure all usual and necessary repairs; to purchase supplies and other necessaries; to obtain and employ stevedores, and make all other arrangements necessary to the loading or unloading of French Line vessels; to handle personnel problems of crew members; to pay for services or supplies furnished French Line vessels; and to book cargo for transportation aboard such vessels. The company's main office is in New Orleans, Louisiana, with local offices in the principal Gulf ports. Its Houston office was managed by Olin Lacy; its Galveston office by Edward Westerman.

10. A. D. Suderman Stevedoring Company, an independent stevedoring concern, was engaged by Binnings to load the Grandcamp in Texas City. C. P. Suderman was the outside superintendent for the company, in charge of handling the cargo. Loading of FGAN onto the Grandcamp began at 2:15 p. m. on April 11, 1947, and continued until 8:20 a. m. on April 16, 1947, when Suderman ordered the stevedores out of the holds. At that time, approximately 1,450 tons of FGAN had been stowed in the No. 2 hold, and some 880 tons in the No. 4 hold.

11. Transports Maritime, a department and agency of the French government, was the source through which the French Line received its orders and instructions as to the operation of the government-owned vessels. Maurice Darondeau was the principal Officer of Transports Maritime in the United States, as Chief of its Shipping and Transport Operation in Washington, D. C. It was this department that arranged for the purchase of Liberty ships, including the Grandcamp, from the United States Maritime Commission, following World War II. It delivered these vessels to the companies that would operate them, such as the French Line. This department then instructed the operators where the vessels were to be sent, with all ports of call to be made. Its purpose was to make available the necessary tonnage in every port where there was a cargo to be transported to France.

12. The French Supply Council was an agency of the Republic of France, located and maintained at Washington, D. C., charged with the duties of arranging for and facilitating the purchase of goods for the relief and rehabilitation of France. It secured priority allotments of FGAN from the United States, arranged the details for its shipment, and directed its movement to ports where French vessels were calling. It was in complete charge of all such activities for and on behalf of the French government in the United States.

13. J. D. Latta & Company was the freight forwarder of the FGAN. Shipments of the FGAN from the ordnance plants to Texas City on government forms of bills of lading named the French Supply Council as consignee, c/o J. D. Latta & Company. Latta had offices in Galveston, and forwarded the FGAN to the vessel's operators or agents.

The Fertilizer Program, and FGAN:

14. Ammonium nitrate, as one member of a larger family of "nitrates", has been an important item in world-wide commerce and industry for many years. By reason of its high free nitrogen content, it is an excellent fertilizer and plant food. In pure form, ammonium nitrate is a powder, but it readily absorbs moisture, and has a tendency to harden and cake. Hence, in pure form it is difficult to handle and use as a fertilizer.

15. Ammonium nitrate also has been extensively used as a principal ingredient of high explosives, and the facilities of Tennessee Valley Authority, and of several ordnance plants, operated by the United States government during World War II, produced large quantities for this purpose. After the termination of hostilities, the United States, as an occupying power, undertook to extend aid to those areas of France formerly occupied by enemy forces. A number of the ordnance plants, previously deactivated, were reactivated for the purpose of producing and processing ammonium nitrate in fertilizer form. As time was required before such plants could reach maximum production, and with the need for such fertilizer in Europe being acute, in 1946 the United States government entered into a contract with a number of private producers of such ammonium nitrate fertilizer, substantially to the following effect. Such private producers (Lion Oil Company being the one here concerned) made available to the government for transfer overseas...

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4 cases
  • Matter of Oswego Barge Corp.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of New York
    • June 28, 1977
    ...a strong dissent. States Steamship Company v. United States, 259 F.2d 458 (9th Cir. 1957) mod. 56 M.C. 1810, and Petition of Republic France, 171 F.Supp. 497 (S.D.Tex.1959), rev'd 290 F.2d 395 (5th Cir. 1969), both also cited by the petitioner, merely held on the facts therein that the ship......
  • Republic of France v. United States
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit
    • July 11, 1961
    ...and conclusions of law of the district court in this case comprise some 43 pages of the printed record, and have been published at 171 F.Supp. 497, 511 and at 1959 A.M.C. 547. Based upon such findings and conclusions, the district court entered an interlocutory decree granting the motion of......
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    • June 29, 1962
    ...that under the above circumstances this section makes acts of the charterer in effect the acts of an owner. Petition of Republic of France, D.C.S.D.Tex.1959, 171 F.Supp. 497, rev'd on other grounds, 5 Cir. 1961, 290 F.2d 395; Scheffler v. Moran Towing & Transportation Co., D.C.E.D.N.Y.1933,......

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