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decided: May 13, 1912.



Author: Pitney

[ 225 U.S. Page 48]

 MR. JUSTICE PITNEY, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

That the facts present a case of general average within the meaning of the clause embodied in the bills of lading is entirely clear. There was a common, imminent peril

[ 225 U.S. Page 49]

     involving ship and cargo, followed by a voluntary and extraordinary sacrifice of property (including extraordinary expenses), necessarily made to avert the peril, and a resulting common benefit to the adventure. McAndrews v. Thatcher, 3 Wall. 347, 365; Star of Hope, 9 Wall. 203, 228; Ralli v. Troop, 157 U.S. 386, 394.

The principal controversy is upon the question of the validity of the agreement that if the shipowner "shall have exercised due diligence to make said ship in all respects seaworthy, and properly manned, equipped and supplied," then, in case of danger, damage, or disaster resulting from (inter alia) negligent navigation, the cargo-owners shall not be exempted from liability for contribution in general average, but with the shipowner shall contribute as if such danger, damage, or disaster had not resulted from negligent navigation. The facts show that the shipowner had fulfilled the condition imposed upon him by this clause; that is, he had "exercised due diligence to make said ship in all respects seaworthy and properly manned, equipped and supplied." The question presented for solution turns upon the effect of the third section of the act of Congress approved February 13, 1893, c. 105, 27 Stat. 445 (U.S. Comp. Stat., 1901, p. 2946), known as the Harter Act, and of the decision of this court in the case of The Irrawaddy, 171 U.S. 187.

Prior to the Harter Act it was established that a common carrier by sea could not by any agreement in the bill of lading exempt himself from responding to the owner of cargo for damages arising from the negligence of the master or crew of the vessel. Liverpool & G.W. Steam Co. v. Phenix Ins. Co., 129 U.S. 397, 438; following New York C. Railroad Co. v. Lockwood, 17 Wall. 357.

But of course the responsibilities of the carrier were subject to modification by law, and with respect to vessels transporting merchandise from or between ports of the United States and foreign ports they were substantially

[ 225 U.S. Page 50]

     modified by the Harter Act. The first three sections of this enactment are pertinent to the present discussion and are set forth in full in the margin.*fn1

Section 1 deals with the shipowner's responsibility for the proper loading, stowage, custody, care and delivery of the cargo, prohibits the insertion in any bill of lading of an agreement relieving him from responsibility for negligence in respect to these duties, and declares such agreements null and void. Section 2 prohibits the insertion in any bill of lading of an agreement lessening or avoiding the obligation of the shipowner to "exercise due diligence (to) properly equip, man, provision and outfit said vessel and to make said vessel seaworthy," etc. Section 3 proceeds to limit the responsibility of a shipowner who shall have exercised due diligence to make his vessel seaworthy and properly manned, equipped and supplied. Instead of merely sanctioning covenants and agreements limiting his liability, Congress went further

[ 225 U.S. Page 51]

     and rendered such agreements unnecessary by repealing the liability itself, declaring that if the shipowner should exercise due diligence to make the vessel in all respects seaworthy, and properly manned, equipped and supplied, neither the vessel, her owner or owners, etc., should be responsible for damage or loss resulting from faults or errors in navigation or in the management of the vessel, etc., etc. The antithesis is worth noting. Congress says to the shipowner -- "In certain respects you shall not be relieved from the responsibilities incident to your public occupation as a common carrier, although the cargo owners agree that you shall be relieved; in certain other respects (provided you fulfill conditions specified) you shall be relieved from responsibility, even without a stipulation from the owners of cargo."

In the case now before us is is argued in behalf of the shipowner that since by the third section of the Harter Act he is absolved from responsibility for the negligence

[ 225 U.S. Page 52]

     of his master and crew under the circumstances existing, there is nothing in the policy of the law to debar him from bargaining with the owners of cargo for a participation in the general average contribution. In behalf of the cargo-owners it is insisted that the construction placed upon the legislation in question by this court in The Irrawaddy, 171 U.S. 187, leaves the shipowner still disabled from making an agreement with the cargo-owners for a participation with them in general average contributions resulting from negligent navigation or management of the ship by its master and crew.

The latter view was adopted by the District Court in New York & Cuba Mail S.S. Co. v. Ansonia Clock Co., 139 Fed. Rep. 894, where a clause identical with the one now under consideration was held invalid. This decision was apparently followed, although not cited, by the same court (162 Fed. Rep. 56), and by the Circuit Court of Appeals (178 Fed. Rep. 414, 416), in the case now under review. In reaching this result the courts below have, as we think, misconceived the effect of the language used by Mr. Justice Shiras, speaking for this court, in The Irrawaddy, and have given to that decision an import quite beyond its legitimate scope. In that case there was no agreement between shipowner and cargo-owner respecting general average, nor respecting the consequences of a stranding or other peril that might result from the negligence of the master or crew of the vessel. On familiar grounds, all of the expressions employed in the opinion are to be construed in the light of the facts of the case and the question actually presented for decision. This was, whether § 3 of the Harter Act, proprio vigore, gave to the shipowner, under the circumstances, a right to general average contribution for sacrifices made by him subsequent to the stranding of the vessel in successful efforts to save her and her freight and cargo. It was pointed out in the opinion that previous to that enactment, in the

[ 225 U.S. Page 53]

     case of a loss arising from the ship's fault, the shipowner was excluded from contribution by way of general average, and was also legally responsible to the owner of the cargo for loss and damage so occasioned; and that it was against the policy of the law to allow stipulations that would relieve a carrier from such liability. It was, however, recognized that it was "competent for Congress to make a change in the standard of duty." It was remarked that by the first and second sections of the Harter Act shipowners were prohibited from inserting in their bills of lading agreements limiting their liability in certain respects, and that the third section by its own terms limited their liability in other respects. The opinion, after stating that as the law stood before the passage of the act the shipowner could not contract against his liability and that of his vessel for loss occasioned by negligence or fault in officers and crew, and that in this particular the owners of American vessels were at a disadvantage as compared with the owners of foreign vessels, who might so contract, proceeded to say (p. 193) that "Congress thought fit to remove the disadvantage, not by declaring that it should be competent for the owners of vessels to exempt themselves from liability for the faults of the master and crew by stipulations to that effect contained in bills of lading, but by enacting that, if the owners exercised due diligence in making their ships seaworthy and in duly manning and equipping them, there should be no liability for the navigation and management of the ships, however, faulty."

This language is laid hold of as indicating that the decision proceeded upon the ground that Congress thought it improper to permit owners of vessels to contract for exemption from liability. What it really means. as will be observed, is, that Congress went further, and by its own enactment exempted them from liability, under given conditions, for the consequences of faulty navigation.

[ 225 U.S. Page 54]

     The point of the decision in The Irrawaddy (and as an authority the case goes no further), is, that while the Harter Act relieved the shipowner from liability for his servant's negligence, it did not of its own force entitle him to share in a general average rendered necessary by such negligence.

It is, however, further insisted in behalf of the cargo owners that the agreement in question is contrary to public policy in another respect, namely, in that it attempts to relieve the shipowner from one of the essential duties arising out of the relation of carrier and shipper, and from which the Harter Act has not relieved him. The argument is that although that act exempts him from the consequences of the negligent stranding, it leaves him still under the duty and obligation of caring for and preserving the cargo, after the stranding; that whenever the safety of the property entrusted to the shipowner is menaced, whether the peril be occasioned by vis major or by fault, and whether such fault be or be not of such character as to fall within the third section of the Harter Act, "the master is nevertheless bound to exert every effort to save the property, and if he fail in this duty his owners are liable to the cargo for the resulting loss." If by "every effort" is meant every reasonable effort, we see no occasion to question the soundness of the reasoning. But it is further insisted that the duty of the master to save the imperiled property extends so far as to call for a sacrifice of a part of the owner's property if necessary to save the cargo. In our opinion the master's duty as agent of the owner is not so extensive. If it were, there would be an end at once of all contribution in general average for ship's sacrifices, for such sacrifices could not be deemed voluntary and extraordinary, if made in performance of the owner's general duty to his cargo.

The cases cited do not support the contention of counsel

[ 225 U.S. Page 55]

     for the cargo-owners in this behalf. Propeller Niagara v. Cordes, 21 How. 7, 28, holds that although the vessel be stranded "the master is bound to the utmost exertions in his power to save the goods from the impending peril, as it is no more than a prudent man would do under like circumstances." The Maggie Hammond, 9 Wall. 435, 458, holds that when the vessel is wrecked or otherwise disabled in the course of the voyage and cannot be repaired without too great delay and expense, it is the duty of the master to transship the goods ans send them forward, if another vessel can be had in the same or a contiguous port or within a reasonable distance, and that upon so doing he is entitled to charge the goods with the increased freight arising from the hire of the vessel so procured. In Star of Hope, 9 Wall. 203, 230, it is pointed out that the duty imposed upon the master, in case of a peril arising to the common adventure, is "to judge and determine at the time whether the circumstances of danger in such a case are or are not so great and pressing as to render a sacrifice of a portion of the associated interests indispensable for the common safety of the remainder." The duty to make a sacrifice of such portion of the associated interests as in the judgment of the master will save the common adventure is obviously inconsistent with the suggested duty to first sacrifice the owner's property for the safety of the cargo. The other cases cited upon this point require no mention.

In our opinion, so far as the Harter Act has relieved the shipowner form responsibility for the negligence of his master and crew, it is no longer against the policy of the law for him to contract with the cargo-owners for a participation in general average contribution growing out of such negligence; and since the clause contained in the bills of lading of the Jason's cargo admits the shipowner to share in the general average only under circumstances where by the act he is relieved from responsibility, the

[ 225 U.S. Page 56]

     provision in question is valid, and entitles him to contribution under the circumstances stated.

The second question is whether, under the like circumstances, the cargo-owners can recover contribution from the shipowner for sacrifices of cargo made subsequent to the stranding, for the common benefit and safety of ship, cargo and freight.

This question was dealt with in The Strathdon, 94 Fed. Rep. 206; 101 Fed. Rep. 600; 41 C.C.A. 515; where however, there seems to have been no general average clause such as we have in the case before us; and by the same courts in this case, 162 Fed. Rep. 56; 178 Fed. Rep. 414; where the general average clause was dealt with as invalid, and therefore, of course, was given no influence in the determination of the present point. The Circuit Court of Appeals expressed the view that if the cargo-owner were allowed to obtain indirectly through a general average adjustment, compensation for losses attributable to the faulty navigation of the ship, and which therefore he could not recover directly because of § 3 of the Harter Act, the result would be a judicial repeal of that section, and that therefore the cargo-owner could not bring the shipowner as a contributing interest into a general average adjustment that might result in a claim which the Harter Act disallows. With this view we have no present concern, because it seems to us that the response we are to make to the second question certified must depend upon the construction of the agreement between the parties. Having already held that the general average clause contained in the bill of lading is valid as against the cargo-owner, it follows ex necessitate that it is valid in his favor; indeed, no ground is suggested for disabling the shipowner from voluntarily subjecting himself or his ship to liability to respond to the cargo in an action or in a general average adjustment, for the consequences of the negligence of his master or crew, even

[ 225 U.S. Page 57]

     though by the Harter Act he is relieved from responsibility for such negligence. Therefore we have only to determine whether by the language of the general average clause the cargo-owners are entitled to contribution from the ship for sacrifices of cargo made subsequent to the stranding for the common benefit and safety. The language is that in the circumstances presented "the consignees or owners of the cargo shall not be exempted from liability for contribution in general average, or for any special charges incurred, but with the shipowner shall contribute in general average, and shall pay such special charges, as if such danger, damage or disaster had not resulted from such default, negligence," etc. This language clearly imports an agreement that the shipowner shall contribute in general average. The opposite view would render the clause inconsistent with the principles of equity and reciprocity upon which the entire law of general average is founded.

The foregoing considerations compel a negative answer to the third question. In view of the valid stipulations contained in the bill of lading, it would be a contradiction of terms to permit the cargo-owners to recover contribution from the ship in respect of general average sacrifices of cargo, without on their part contributing to the general average sacrifices and expenditures of the shipowner made for the same purpose. This would not be general average contribution, the essence of which is that extraordinary sacrifices made and expenses incurred for the common benefit and safety are to be borne proportionately by all who are interested.

Our conclusion, accordingly, is that of the questions certified to us by the Circuit Court of Appeals, the first question should be answered in the affirmative, the second question should be answered in the affirmative, and the third question should be answered in the negative, and it is

So ordered.

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