Wesley Richardson v. Judson Harmon

Citation32 S.Ct. 27,56 L.Ed. 110,222 U.S. 96
PartiesWESLEY C. RICHARDSON et al., Appts., v. JUDSON HARMON, Receiver of the Toledo Terminal & Railway Company. No. ___
Decision Date20 November 1911
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Messrs. Harvey D. Goulder and Frank S. Masten for appellants.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 96-98 intentionally omitted] Messrs. George L. Canfield and Frank H. Canfield for appellee.

[Argument of Counsel from page 98 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Lurton delivered the opinion of the court:

The steam barge 'Crete,' while proceeding up the Maumee river from Lake Erie, collided with the abutment of a railway drawbridge, resulting in great damage to both barge and bridge. For the damage sustained by the bridge an action was brought against two of the owners of the barge in a common-law court of the state at Toledo, Ohio. Thereupon the owners of the barge, three in number, filed their petition and libel in the district court of the United States at Cleveland, Ohio, where two of them resided and where the 'Crete' was lying, for a limitation of liability under §§ 4283-4285, Revised Statutes (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 2943, 2944), and § 18 of the act of June 26, 1884 [23 Stat. at L. 57, chap. 121, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 2945].

This petition duly averred that the said collision was without fault upon the part of the 'Crete;' but, if there was any, it was without the privity or knowledge of the owners, or either of them. It stated that the damages claimed in the pending action at law were $35,000, and that they apprehended other actions of like kind, and if liable as claimed, the aggregate would greatly exceed the value of the interests of the owners in the vessel and her freight. Therefore, the petition sought the benefit of the limited-liability act of Congress and the right to defend against any liability, as provided by general law and admiralty rule 56 of the Supreme Court.

Under this petition an appraisement was made of the value of the 'Crete' on the termination of her voyage, and the value of each separate one-third interest of each owner in the vessel and her pending freight was appraised at $4,171.50, for which value bond was made to stand in the room and place of the boat and her freight. Monition issued in usual form, requiring everyone claiming any loss or damage 'by reason of the premises,' to appear and make proof of their respective claims.

The appellees were also enjoined from proceeding with the action pending in the said common-law court, and they, together with all the world, were admonished to bring no other or further actions, and to file their claims against the 'Crete,' or her owners, in the court below, that they might share in the distribution of the appraised value of the said vessel and her pending freight.

The appellee, Judson Harmon, as receiver of the Toledo Terminal & Railway Company, owner of the bridge damaged by the collision mentioned, appeared and excepted to the jurisdiction of the court. This exception was sustained and the injunction dissolved, the court holding that the cause of action asserted in the common-law court of Ohio by said receiver against the owners of the colliding barge was for a nonmaritime tort, not cognizable in a court of admiralty, and that the limited-liability act of Congress did not extend to any such right of action.

Prior to the 18th section of the act of June 26, 1884 (23 Stat. at L. pp. 53, 57, chap. 121, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, pp. 2804, 2945), it had been the settled law that the district court, sitting as a court of admiralty, had no jurisdiction to try an action for damages against a shipowner, arising from a fire on land, communicated by the ship, or from a collision between the ship and a structure on land, such as a bridge or pier. The tort in both cases would have been a nonmaritime tort, and, as such, not within the cognizance of an admiralty court. The Plymouth (Hough v. Western Transp. Co.) 3 Wall. 20, 18 L. ed. 125; The Troy (Duluth & S. Bridge Co. v. The Troy) 208 U. S. 321, 52 L. ed. 512, 28 Sup. Ct. Rep. 416.

Inasmuch as the owner's liability was not limited by the statutes providing for a limited liability, the pendency of a petition to obtain the benefits of the limitation did not operate to draw into such a proceeding action for a liability which could in no wise be affected by it. Ex parte Phenix Ins. Co. 118 U. S. 610, 30 L. ed. 274, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 25. Such was the law, and so it still is unless changed by the 18th section of the act of June 26, 1884. That section is found in a chapter, the title of which is, 'An Act to Remove Certain Burdens on the American Merchant Marine, and Encourage the American Foreign Carrying Trade, and for Other Purposes.' The 18th section reads as follows:

'That the individual liability of a shipowner shall be limited to the proportion of any or all debts and liabilities that his individual share of the vessel bears to the whole; and the aggregate liabilities of all the owners of a vessel on account of the same shall not exceed the value of such vessels and freight pending: Provided, That this provision shall not affect the liability of any owner, incurred previous to the passage of this act, nor prevent any claimant from joining all the owners in one action; nor shall the same apply to wages due to persons employed by said shipowners.'

That the provision is not as definite as desirable may be conceded. The contention, upon the one hand, is that the limitation is extended only to obligations ex contractu; while, upon the other, that every kind of liability which might fall upon an owner on account of the ship, incurred without his knowledge or privity, is given the benefit of the provision. That it was intended to limit the owner's liability in respect of debts contracted on account of the ship is plain. But if that was the only purpose, why add the significant words, 'and liabilities?' The limited-liability act, as it stood, did not include the owner's individual liability for obligations ex contractu incurred without his knowledge or privity. Neither did it extend to his individual liability for nonmaritime torts by the master or crew. Was it the purpose of Congress to exclude this kind of an individual responsibility from the benefits of the limited-liability statute, while including every other class and kind of individual liability, except seamen's wages? Is no significance to be attached to the fact that the provision does not stop by adding to the former kind of claims against an owner 'any and all debts,' but terminates the clause by inserting, 'and liabilities,'—a perfectly unnecessary statement, if it was only meant to extend the limitation to obligations ex contractu? The meager debate which occurred upon this section of the act,—an act which included many other matters concerning the shipping interests of the country,—if competent at all, throws little or no light as to the meaning which was supposed to be attached to liabilities, as distinguished from claims arising out of contract. There does appear, however, a broad general purpose to put a shipowner in the status of one whose risk on account of obligations arising from the conduct of the master and crew is confined to his proportionate interest in the ship and her freight. No purpose to repeal or qualify any of the terms of the existing liability law is declared, nor is this section declared, in words, to be an amendment of that...

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  • Resolved: Is 46 U.S.C. [section] 30501(a) a Jurisdictional Statute of Limitations or a Mandatory Claims Processing Rule?
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