[320 U.S. 249, 250] Mr. T. Catesby Jones, of New York City, for petitioners.
Mr. George C. Sprague, of New York City, for respondents.
Mr. Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioners, Consumers Import Campany, and others hold bills of lading covering several hundred shipments of merchandise. The shipments were damaged or destroyed by fire or by the means used to extinguish fire on board the Japanese ship Venice Maru on August 6, 1934, on voyage from Japan to Atlantic ports of the United States. Respondent Kabushiki Kaisha Kawasaki Zosenjo owned the Venice Maru and let her to the other respondent, Kawasaki Kisen Kabushiki Kaisha, under a bareboat form of charter. The latter was operating her as a common carrier.
Damage to the cargo is conceded from causes which are settled by the findings below, which we decline to review. 1 Upwards of 660 tons of sardine meal in bags was stowed in a substantially solid mass in the hold. In view of its susceptibility to heating and combustion it had inadequate ventilation. As the ship neared the Panama Canal, fire broke out, resulting in damage to cargo and ship. The cause of the fire is found to be negligent stowage of the fish meal, which made the vessel unseaworthy. The negligence was that of a person employed to supervise loading to whom responsibility was properly delegated and who was qualified by experience to perform the work. No negligence or design of the owner or charterer is found. [320 U.S. 249, 251] The cargo claimants filed libels in rem against the ship and in personam against the charterer for breach of contracts of carriage. The owner joined the charterer in a proceeding in admiralty to decree exemption from or limitation of liability. Stipulation and security were substituted for the ship in the custody of the court. 2 The District Court applied the so-called 'Fire Statute' to exonerate the owner entirely and the charterer and the ship in all except matters not material to the issue here. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, taking a view of the statute in conflict with that of the Fifth Circuit in The Etna Maru, 33 F.2d 232. To resolve the conflict we granted certiorari expressly limited to the question, 'Does the Fire Statute extinguish maritime liens for cargo damage, or is its operation confined to in personam liability only?'3
The Fire Statute reads: 'No owner of any vessel shall be liable to answer for or make good to any person any loss or damage, which may happen to any merchandise whatsoever, which shall be shipped, taken in, or put on board any such vessel, by reason or by means of any fire happening to or on board the vessel, unless such fire is caused by the design or neglect of such owner.' 4 The statute also provides that a charterer such as we have here stands in the position of the owner for purposes of limitation or exemption of liability. 5 [320 U.S. 249, 252] Since 'neglect of such owner' means his personal negligence, or in case of a corporate owner, negligence of its managing officers and agents as distinguished from that of the master or subordinates,6 the findings below take the case out of the only exception provided by statute.
Apart from this inapplicable exception the immunity granted appears on its face complete. But claimants contend that because their contracts of affreightment were signed 'for master' they became under maritime law ship's contracts, independently of any owners' contracts, and that the ship itself stands bound to the cargo though the owner may be freed. It seems unnecessary to examine the validity of the claim that apart from the statute claimants under the circumstances would have a lien on the vessel, or to review the historical development of the fiction that the ship for some purposes is treated as a jural personality apart from that of its owner. If we assume that the circumstances are appropriate otherwise for such a lien as claimants assert, it only brings us to the question whether the Fire Statute cuts across it as well as other doctrines of liability and extinguishes claims against the vessel as well as against the owner.
The provision here in controversy is Section 1 of the Act of March 3, 1851, 46 U.S.C.A. 182. Despite its all but a century of existence, the contention here made has never been before this Court. Sections 3 and 4 of the same Act, 46 U.S.C.A. 183, 184, in other circumstances provided limitations of liability, and as to them a question was considered by this Court in The City of Norwich, 1886, 118 U.S. 468, 502 , 6 S.Ct. 1150, 1161, stated thus: 'It is next contended that the act of Congress does not extend to the exoneration of the ship, but only exonerates the owners by a surrender of the ship and freight, and, therefore, that the plea of limited liability cannot be received in a pro- [320 U.S. 249, 253] ceeding in rem.' The Court rejected the contention and held that when the owner satisfied the limited obligation fixed on him by statute, owner and vessel were both discharged. The Court said that 'To say that an owner is not liable, but that his vessel is liable, seems to us like talking in riddles.' The riddle after more than half a century repeated to us in different context does not appear to us to have improved with age.
In the meantime, with the exception of The Etna Maru, the lower federal courts have uniformly construed the statute as exonerating the ship as well as the owner. 7 We would be reluctant to overturn an interpretation supported by such consensus of opinion among courts of admiralty, even if its justification were more doubtful than this appears.