CHESAPEAKE & O. RY. CO. v. MARTIN(1931)
[283 U.S. 209, 210] Messrs. Meade T. Spicer, Jr., and Walter Leake, both of Richmond, Va., for petitioner.
Mr. Justice SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is an action brought by the respondents against petitioner in a state court to recover damages for the 'misdelivery' of a carload of potatoes transported on a through bill of lading in interstate commerce. On November 6, 1925, the shipment was initiated in Michigan by another carrier, and transferred to the petitioner for final transportation to, and delivery in, Richmond, Va. Respondents had arranged for the storage of potatoes with the Bowman Transfer Company in Richmond, and petitioner had been notified that all potatoes billed to respondents were to be delivered at the warehouse of that company. The potatoes arrived at petitioner's yards in [283 U.S. 209, 211] Richmond six days after shipment from Michigan, and four days later ( November 16th) were inspected by respondents, who thereupon paid all freight and demurrage charges and became entitled to delivery. To make delivery to the Bowman warehouse, it first was necessary to transfer the car of potatoes to the Southern Railway; and the usual time required for the entire movement was not more than forty-eight hours. Petitioner, on November 17th, transferred the car to the Southern Railway, but by mistake directed that delivery be made to the warehouse of D. S. Harwood, where the car was unloaded and the potatoes were stored in the belief that they belonged to a customer of Harwood. The smae day the Bowman Company mailed to respondents a warehouse receipt acknowledging the receipt and storage of the potatoes in the warehouse of that company; but a month later advised respondents by letter that the receipt had been issued in error, and that the car had been taken to the warehouse of D. S. Harwood. Notwithstanding this letter, respondents visited the Bowman warehouse, and upon inquiry concluded that the potatoes were there. The made no inquiry of the petitioner or at the Harwood warehouse. Harwood did not know the respondents or suspect that they were the owners of the potatoes until May 10, 1926, at which time he informed them that he had the car. The respondents then identified the potatoes, found them in a spoiled condition, sold them for a small sum, and brought this action. No notice of loss was given or claim for damages made until May 26, 1926, a period of six months and twenty days after the shipment from Michigan.
The bill of lading contains the following provision:
Petitioner's freight agent testified that a reasonale t ime after shipment for delivery of the potatoes to the consignee in Richmond would be about eight days, and that, if any longer time were taken, it would be considered a delayed movement. There was no eivdence to the contrary.
At the conclusion of respondents' case in rebuttal, petitioner demurred to the evidence upon the ground that the action was barred by the provision of the bill of lading requiring claims for loss or damage in case of failure to make delivery to be made 'within six months after a reasonable time for delivery has elapsed.' The demurrer was overruled and judgment entered against petitioner upon verdict for the sum of $1684.39. The trial court said that the testimony of the freight agent was no part of the plaintiffs' case; that the misdelivery was made through his office; that, although unimpeached, the jury would not be bound to accept the evidence of the agent as conclusive; and, consequently, that the court was obliged to disregard it and overrule the demurrer of the evidence. The judgment was affirmed on appeal. 143 S. E. 629; 152 S. E. 335.
The provision of the bill of lading that claim for loss in case of failure to deliver must be made within six months after the lapse of a reasonable time for delivery is authorized by federal statute,1 and is valid and appli- [283 U.S. 209, 213] cable, Georgia, Fla. & Fla. Ry. v. Blish Co., 241 U.S. 190, 197 , 36 S. Ct. 541; and, since it was issued in respect of an interstate shipment pursuant to an act of Congress, the bill of lading is an instrumentality of such commerce, and the question whether its provisions have been complied with is a federal question to be determined by the application of federal law. Southern Express Co. v. Byers, 240 U.S. 612, 614 , 36 S. Ct. 410, L. R. A. 1917A, 197; Southern Ry. v. Prescott, 240 U.S. 632 , 635-636, 36 S. Ct. 469; Georgia, Fla. & Ala. Ry. v. Blish Co., supra, page 195 of 241 U. S., 36 S. Ct. 541; St. Louis, I. Mt. & So. Ry. Co. v. Starbird, 243 U.S. 592, 595 , 37 S. Ct. 462.
The state Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment on the grounds that the evidence was sufficient to show compliance on the part of respondents with the requirement of the bill of lading in respect of the time for making claim; and that, in any event, the petitioner was estopped from asserting noncompliance with that requirement. We are of opinion that neither ground is tenable.
First. Since the claim for loss was not made until the expiration of six months and twenty days after the shipment, the first ground resolves itself into the question whether twenty days was a reasonable time for the delivery of the car to the consignee. What constitutes a reasonable time depends upon the circumstances of the particular case. As applied to a case like this, it means such time as is necessary conveniently to transport and make delivery of the shipment in the ordinary course of business, in the light of the circumstances and conditions surrounding the transaction. Hazzard Co. v. Railroad Co., 121 Me. 199, 202-203, 116 A. 258. Compare First Nat. Bank v. Pipe & Contractors' Supply Co. (C.C.A.) 273 F. 105, 107, 108.
A demurrer to the evidence must be tested by the same rules that apply in respect of a motion to direct a verdict. Schuchardt v. Allen, 1 Wall. 359, 369-370; Merrick's Executor v. Giddings, 115 U.S. 300, 305 , 6 S. Ct. 65. In ruling upon either, the court must resolve all conflicts in the evidence against the defendant; but is bound to sustain the demur- [283 U.S. 209, 214] rer or grant the motion, as the case may be, whenever the facts established and the conclusions which they reasonably justify are legally insufficient to serve as the foundation for a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Id.; Baltimore & Ohio R. R. Co. v. Greger , 266 U.S. 521, 524 , 45 S. Ct. 169; and cases cited; C., M. & St. P. Ry. v. Coogan, 271 U.S. 472 , 476-478, 46 S. Ct. 564. And, in the consideration of the question, the court, as will be shown, is not at liberty to disregard the testimony of a witness on the ground that he is an employee of the defendant, in the absence of conflicting proof or of circumstances justifying countervailing inferences or suggesting doubt as to the truth of his statement, unless the evidence be of such a nature as fairly to be open to challenge as suspicious or inherently improbable. The agent at petitioner's freight office in Richmond, shown by twenty years' experience to be qualified to speak, testified, in part, as follows:
[283 U.S. 209, 215] 'Q. Would anything beyond that be considered a delayed movement?
It sufficiently appears that the time reasonably necessary for completion of delivery to the Bowman warehouse after the receipt of the shipment at petitioner's yards would, in no event, exceed forty-eight hours.
Not only is the estimate of the agent reasonable upon its face and in accordance with probability; and not only is it wholly unchallenged by other evidence or circumstances; but it is so completely corroborated by the undisputed facts in respect of this very shipment as to put it beyond the reach of a fair doubt. The movement of the car from the point of origin to the yards of petitioner in Richmond actually was made in six days; and, if there be added full forty-eight hours thereafter for completing delivery to the Bowman warehouse, the testimony of the agent as to time stands verified by indubitable test. In [283 U.S. 209, 216] the face of this record, the conclusion of the court that it was still open for the jury to say that not eight days merely, but twenty days, fell short of being a reasonable time for delivery, is so clearly erroneous as to cause the ruling of the court, in effect, to rest upon nothing more substantial than the power of a jury arbitrarily to disregard established facts.
We recognize the general rule, of course, as stated by both courts below, that the question of the credibility of witnesses is one for the jury alone; but this does not mean that the jury is at liberty, under the guise of passing upon the credibility of a witness, to disregard his testimony, when from no reasonable point of view is it open to doubt. The complete testimony of th age nt in this case appears in the record. A reading of it discloses no lack of candor on his part. It was not shaken by cross-examination; indeed, upon this point, there was no cross- examination. Its accuracy was not controverted by proof or circumstances, directly or inferentially; and it is difficult to see why, if inaccurate, it readily could not have been shown to be so. The witness was not impeached; and there is nothing in the record which reflects unfavorably upon his credibility. The only possible ground for submitting the question to the jury as one of fact was that the witness was an employee of the petitioner. In the circumstances above detailed, we are of opinion that this was not enough to take the question to the jury, and that the court should have so held.
It is true that numerous expressions are to be found in the decisions to the effect that the credibility of an interested witness always must be submitted to the jury, and that that body is at liberty to reject his testimony upon the sole ground of his interest. But these broad generalizations cannot be accepted without qualification. Such a variety of differing facts, however, is disclosed by the cases that no useful purpose would be served by an attempt to review them. In many, if not most, of them, there [283 U.S. 209, 217] were circumstances tending to cast suspicion upon the testimony or upon the witness, apart from the fact that he was interested. We have been unable to find any decision enforcing such a rule where the facts and circumstances were comparable to those here disclosed. Applied to such facts and circumstances, the rule, by the clear weight of authority, is definitely to the contrary. Hauss v. Lake Erie & W. R. Co. (C. C. A.) 105 F. 733; Illinois Cent. R. Co. v. Coughlin (C. C. A.) 132 F. 801, 803; Hull v. Littauer, 162 N. Y. 569, 57 N. E. 102; Second Nat. Bank v. Weston, 172 N. Y. 250, 258, 64 N. E. 949; Johnson v. N. Y. C. & H. R. R. R. Co., 173 N. Y. 79, 83, 65 N. E. 946; St. Paul Cattle Loan Co. v. Housman, 54 S. D. 630, 632, 244 N. E. 189; M. H. Thomas & Co. v. Hawthorne (Tex. Civ. App.) 245 S. W. 966, 972; Dunlap v. Wright (Tex. Civ. App.) 280 S. W. 276, 279; Still v. Stevens (Tex. Civ. App.) 13 S.W.(2d) 956; Marchand v. Bellin, 158 Wis. 184, 186, 147 N. W. 1033. Of like effect, although in a different connection, see also, Roberts v. Chicago City, Ry. Co., 262 Ill. 228, 232, 104 N. E. 708; Veatch v. State, 56 Ind. 584, 587, 26 Am. Rep. 44; Marq., Hought. & Ont. R. R. v. Kirkwood, 45 Mich. 51, 53, 7 N. W. 209, 40 Am. Rep. 453; Berzevizy v. D., L. & W. R. R. Co., 19 App. Div. 309, 313, 46 N. Y. S. 27; Miller's Will, 49 Or. 452, 464, 90 P. 1002, 124 Am. St. Rep. 1051, 14 Ann. Cas. 277.
In Hull v. Littauer, supra, the doctrine that the question of credibility of a witness must be submitted to the jury was held to be not an inflexible one, even though such witness be a party to the action. In that case the defendants moved for direction of a verdict in their favor, which was resisted by plaintiff on the ground that the proof upon which the motion was based rested upon the evidence of interested parties. The court, nevertheless, sustained the motion. On appeal, the state Court of Appeals affirmed this judgment, saying (page 572 of 162 N. Y., 57 N. E. 102):
In Hauss v. Lake Erie & W. R. Co., supra, a direction of the trial judge to find for the defendant was sustained, although the motion rested upon the testimony of the conductor of the train. The court put aside the objection that the witness was an employee of the defendant and had an interest to show that he had performed his duty and a motive falsely to represent that he had done so, saying (page 735 of 105 F.):
And, at page 736 of 105 F.:
In M. H. Thomas & Co. v. Hawthorne, supra, at page 972 of 245 S. W., the rule is thus stated:
Second. The estoppel relied upon seems to be that, since petitioner negligently delivered the shipment to the Harwood warehouse, instead of to the Bowman warehouse, and respondents made claim for the loss promptly after discovering the negligent misdelivery, petitioner may not be heard to complain that the claim was not made at an earlier day. The court below said (143 S. E. 629, 630):
-and then quoted from that case the following:
But the vice of this position is that, in following its own prior decision, the court ignored the decision of this court to the contrary. This lawfully it could not do; the ques- [283 U.S. 209, 221] tion, as we have shown, being a federal question to be determined by the application of federal law. The determination by this court of that question is binding upon the state courts, and must be followed, any state law, decision, or rule to the contrary notwithstanding. And it was distinctly held by this court in Georgia, Fla. & Ala. Ry. v. Blish Co., supra, page 197 of 241 U. S., 36 S. Ct. 541, 544, that the parties to a contract of interstate shipment by rail, made pursuant to the Interstate Commerce Act, could not waive its terms; 'nor could the carrier by its conduct give the shipper the right to ignore these terms which were applicable to that conduct, and hold the carrier to a different responsibility from that fixed by the agreement made under the published tariffs and regulations. A different view would antagonize the plain policy of the act and open the door to the very abuses at which the act was aimed.' The provision of the bill of lading involved there was identical with that here under consideration; and there, as here, the delivery was to another in violation of instructions. The Blish Company insisted that the phrase 'failure to make delivery' did not cover a case of misdelivery, but this court said (page 195 of 241 U. S., 36 S. Ct. 541, 543):
Other state courts have correctly interpreted the decision of this court in that case as applying to a situation like the one here presented, and have followed it, although in some instances their prior decisions had been to the contrary. See, among others, Bronstein v. Payne, 138 Md. 116, 120, 113 A. 648; Metz Co. v. Boston & Maine Railroad, 227 Mass. 307, 116 N. E. 475. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia itself, in Davis v. Rodgers, 139 Va. 618, 625, 124 S. E. 408, seems to have taken the same view.
It is held by his court that the shipper may not invoke the doctrine of estoppel against the right to collect the legal rate, because to do so wuld be to avoid the requirement of the law as to equal rates. Pittsburgh, etc., Ry. Co. v. Fink, 250 U.S. 577, 582 , 40 S. Ct. 27; L . & N. R. R. v. Central Iron Co., 265 U.S. 59, 65 , 44 S. Ct. 441, and cases cited. These decisions lend support to our conclusion in respect of the matter here. Whether under any circumstances the shipper may rely upon that doctrine in avoidance of the time limitation clause of the bill of lading, we need not now determine. But the Blish Company Case makes clear that the fact that delivery was made contrary to instructions, due to the misunderstanding or negligence of the carrier, cannot successfully be set up as an estoppel against the claim of a failure to comply with the requirement of the bill of lading here involved. To allow it would be to alter the terms of a contract, made in pursuance of the Interstate Commerce Act and having, in effect, the quality of a statute of limitation, and thus to open the door for evasions of the spirit and purpose of the act to prevent preferences and discrimination in respect of rates and service. Compare A. J. Phillips Co. v. Grand Trunk Western R. Co ., 236 U.S. 662, 667 , 35 S. Ct. 444.
[ Footnote 1 ] Interstate Commerce Act, 20(11), as amended by Act March 4, 1915, c. 176, 38 Stat. 1196, and by Transportation Act 1920, c. 91, 41 Stat. 456, 494, 437, 438, U. S. Code, title 49, 20(11), 49 USCA 20(11).