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OCEANIC STEAM NAV. CO. v. MELLOR , 233 U.S. 718 (1914)

United States Supreme Court


No. 798

Decided: May 25, 1914

[233 U.S. 718, 719]   Messrs. Charles C. Burlingham, Norman B. Beecher, and J. Parker Kirlin for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company.

[233 U.S. 718, 721]   Messrs. Frederick M. Brown, George Whitefield Betts, Jr., Francis H. Kinnicutt, Kenneth Gardner, and John C. Prizer for William J. Mellor and Harry Anderson.

[233 U.S. 718, 730]   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 [233 U.S. 718, 731]   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 S. 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 [233 U.S. 718, 732]   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 Co. 213 U.S. 347, 356 , 53 S. L. ed. 826, 832, 29 Sup. Ct. Rep. 511, 16 Ann. Cas. 1047. It is true that the foundation for a recovery upon a British tort is an obligation created by British law. But it also is true that the laws of the forum may decline altogether to enforce that obligation on the ground that it is contrary to the domestic policy, or may decline to enforce it except within such limits as it may impose. Cuba R. Co. v. Crosby, 222 U.S. 473, 478 , 480 S., 56 L. ed. 274-276, 38 L.R.A.(N.S.) 40, 32 Sup. Ct. Rep. 132; Dicey, Confl. L. 2d ed. 647. It is competent, therefore, for Congress to enact that, in certain matters belonging to admiralty jurisdiction, parties resorting to our courts shall recover only to such extent or in such way as it may mark out. Butler v. Boston & S. S. S. Co., 130 U.S. 527 , 32 L. ed. 1017, 9 Sup. Ct. Rep. 612. The question is not whether the owner of the Titanic by this proceeding can require all claimants to come in, and can cut down rights vested under English law, as against, for instance, Englishmen living in England, who do not appear. It is only whether those who do see [233 U.S. 718, 733]   fit to sue in this country are limited in their recovery irrespective of the English law. That they are so limited results, in our opinion, from the decisions of this court. For on what ground was the limitation of liability allowed in The Scotland or La Bourgogne? Not on their being subject to the act of Congress or any law of the United States in their conduct, but if not on that ground, then it must have been because our statute permits a foreign vessel to limit its liability according to the act when sued in the United States. There may be some little uncertainty in the language of Mr. Justice Bradley in the earlier case. A slight suggestion that the statute is applied because of a vacuum,-the absence of any law properly governing the transaction. But it was no necessary part of his argument that people were to be made liable after the event by the mere choice of forum; and if they were, it would not be because of the act of Congress. That does not impose, but only limits, the liability,-a liability assumed already to exist on other grounds. The essential point was that he limitation might be applied to foreign ships if sued in this country, although they were not subject to our substantive law.

It is not necessary to consider whether the act of Congress may not limit the rights of shippers or American vessels to recover for injuries in our waters or on the high seas, so that if they sued in a foreign court they could not be allowed to recover more than the act allows, if our construction of the law were followed. A law that limits a right in one case may limit a remedy in another. This statute well might be held to announce a general policy, governing both obligations that arise within the jurisdiction and suits that are brought in the courts of the United States. Emery v. Burrbank, 163 Mass. 326, 328, 28 L.R.A. 57, 47 Am. St. Rep. 456, 39 N. E. 1026. It clearly limits the remedy, as we have shown, in cases where it has nothing to say about the rights. With the explanation that we have made we may repeat here Jus- [233 U.S. 718, 734]   tice Bradley's words: 'The rule of limited responsibility is now our maritime rule. It is the rule by which, through the act of Congress, we have announced that we propose to administer justice in maritime cases.'

We see no absurdity in supposing that if the owner of the Titanic were sued in different countries, each having a different rule affecting the remedy there, the local rule should be applied in each case. It can be imagined that, in consequence of such diverse proceedings, the owner might not be able to comply with the local requirements for limitation, as it also is conceivable that, if it sought the advantage of an alien law, it might as a condition have to pay more than its liability under the law of its flag in some cases. But the imagining of such possible difficulties is no sufficient reason for not applying the statute as it has been construed, on the whole, it would seem, with good effect.

It follows from what we have said that the first two questions must be answered in the affirmative, and the third, the law of the United States.

Answer: A, Yes.

B, Yes.

C, The law of the United States.

Mr. Justice McKenna considers it a proper deduction from The Scotland that the law of the foreign country should be enforced in respect of the amount of the owner's liability.

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OCEANIC STEAM NAV. CO. v. MELLOR , 233 U.S. 718 (1914)

Citation: 233 U.S. 718

Docket No: No. 798

Decided: May 25, 1914

Court: United States Supreme Court

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