Central of Georgia Railway Company v. Murphey/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

196 U.S. 194

CENTRAL OF GEORGIA RAILWAY COMPANY  v.  MURPHEY

 Argued: December 16, 1904. --- Decided: January 9, 1905


The supreme court of Georgia has held in this case that the statute applies to shipments of freight destined to points outside, as well as to those inside, the state, and we must accept that construction of the state statute. The question for us to decide is whether the statute, when applied to an interstate shipment of freight, is an interference with, or a regulation of, interstate commerce, and therefore void.

We think the imposition upon the initial or any connecting carrier, of the duty of tracing the freight, and informing the shipper, in writing, when, where, how, and by which carrier the freight was lost, damaged, or destroyed, and of giving the names of the parties and their official position, if any, by whom the truth of the facts set out in the information can be established, is, when applied to interstate commerce, a violation of the commerce clause of the Federal Constitution. The supreme court of Georgia has held that a carrier has, in that state, the right to make a contract with the shipper to limit its liability, as a earrier, to damage or loss occurring on its own line. Central R. & Bkg. Co. v. Avant, 80 Ga. 195, 5 S. E. 78; Richmond & D. R. Co. v. Shomo, 90 Ga. 500, 16 S. E. 220.

Whether the state would have the right to prohibit such a contract with regard to interstate commerce need not therefore be considered. It has not done so, but, on the contrary, its highest court has recognized the validity of such a contract. Without the provisions of the statute in question, the plaintiff in error would not be liable to the shippers in this case, if, without negligence, they delivered the consignment in good condition to the succeeding carrier. This they offered to prove was the case. But if this statute be valid, this limitation of liability can only be availed of by the railroad company by complying with its provisions. In other words, before it can avail itself of the exemption from liability beyond its own line, provided for by its valid contract, the initial or any connecting carrier must comply with the terms of the statute, and must, within thirty days after notification, obtain and give to the shipper the information provided for therein. This is certainly a direct burden upon interstate commerce, for it affects most vitally the law in relation to that commerce, and prevents the exemption provided by a legal contract between the parties from taking effect except upon terms which we hold to be a regulation of interstate commerce. It is said that the reason for the passage of such an act lies in the fact that, as a general rule, shippers under such a contract as the one in question are very much inconvenienced in obtaining evidence of the loss or damage, where it occurred on another road than that of the initial carrier. It is contended that, under such contracts, there being great difficulty in identifying the particular carrier upon whose road the loss occurred, it is reasonable to make the initial or other connecting carrier liable therefor, unless such carrier furnish the information provided for in the statute.

We can readily see that a provision, such as is contained in the statute in question, would be a very convenient one to shippers of freight through different states. And a provision making the initial or any connecting carrier liable in any event for any loss or damage sustained by the shipper, on account of the negligence of any one of the connecting lines, would also be convenient for the shippers; but it would hardly be maintained, when applied to the interstate shipment of freight, that a state statute to that effect would not violate the commerce clause of the Federal Constitution. The provision of this statute, while not quite so onerous, is yet a very plain burden upon interstate commerce. It is also said that it is so much easier for the initial or other connecting carrier to obtain the information provided for in the statute than it is for the shipper, that a statute requiring such information to be obtained, under the penalty of such carrier being liable for the damage sustained, ought to be upheld for that very reason.

Assuming the fact that the carrier might more readily obtain the information than the shipper, we do not think it is material upon the question under consideration. We are not, however, at all clear in regard to the fact. The loss or damage might occur on the line of a connecting carrier, outside the state where the shipment was made (as was the case here), and we do not perceive that the initial carrier has any means of obtaining the information desired, not open to the shipper. The railroad company receiving the freight from the shipper has no means of compelling the servants of any connecting carrier to answer any question in regard to the shipment, or to acknowledge its receipt by such carrier, or to state its condition when received. And when it is known by the servants of the connecting company that the object of such questions is to place in the hands of the shipper information upon which its liability for the loss or damage to the freight is to be based, it would seem plain that the information would not be very readily given, and the initial or other carrier could not compel it. The effect of such a statute is direct and immediate upon interstate commerce. If directly affects the liability of the carrier of freight destined to points outside the state, with regard to the transportation of articles of commerce; it prevents a valid contract of exemption from taking effect except upon a very onerous condition, and it is not of that class of state legislation which has been held to be rather an aid to than a burden upon such commerce. The statute in question prevents the carrier from availing itself of a valid contract unless such carrier comply with the provisions of the statute by obtaining information which it has no means of compelling another carrier to give, and yet, if the information is not obtained, the carrier is to be held liable for the negligence of another carrier over whose conduct it has no control. This is not a reasonable regulation in aid of interstate commerce, but a direct and immediate burden upon it.

The case of Richmond & A. R. Co. v. Patterson Tobacco Co. 169 U.S. 311, 42 L. ed. 759, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 335, is not an authority against these views, but, on the contrary, it supports and exemplifies them. The section of the Virginia Code (1295 of 1887) was held not to be a regulation of interstate commerce, because it simply established a rule of evidence ordaining the character of proof by which a carrier might show that, although it received goods for transportation beyond its own line, nevertheless, by agreement, its liability was limited to its own line. The statute left the earrier free to make any limitation as to its liability on an interstate shipment, beyond its own line as it might deem proper, provided, only, the evidence of the contract was in writing and signed by the shipper. The provision of the Virginia statute that, although the contract in writing provided for therein was made in fact, yet 'if such thing be lost or injured, such common carrier shall himself be liable therefor, unless, within a reasonable time after demand made, he shall give satisfactory proof to the consignor that the loss or injury did not occur while the thing was in his charge,' is a materially different provision from the one under consideration. A provision in a statute may be deemed a reasonable one, and not a regulation of interstate commerce, where the statute simply imposes a duty upon the carrier, when the loss has not happened on the carrier's own line, to inform the shipper of that fact within a reasonable time, and this court has said in the above case that such a provision is manifestly within the power of the state to adopt. This is very different from the duty imposed upon the carrier by the statute in question here, which is much more onerous, and imposes a liability unless the detailed information provided for in the statute is obtained and given to the shipper.

The case of Chicago M. & St. P. R. Co. v. Solan, 169 U.S. 133, 42 L. ed. 688, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 289, holds the same general principle as that involved in the case just cited. To the same effect are the cases referred to in the opinion of Mr. Justice Gray in the Solan Case. It is idle to attempt to comment upon the various cases decided by this court relating to this clause of the Federal Constitution. We are familiar with them, and we are certain that our decision in this case does not run counter to the principles decided in any of those cases. The statute here considered we think plainly imposes a burden upon the carrier of interstate commerce, and is not an aid to it, but, in its direct and immediate effect, it is quite the contrary.

The power to regulate the relative rights and duties of all persons and corporations within the limits of the state cannot extend so far as to thereby regulate interstate commerce. The police power of the state does not give it the right to violate any provision of the Federal Constitution. Being of the opinion that the statute in question, when applied to an interstate shipment, is a regulation of interstate commerce, we must hold the statute, so far as it affects such shipments, to be void on that account. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Georgia is reversed and the case remanded for such further proceedings as may be consistent with this opinion.

Reversed.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).