Michigan Central Railroad Company v. Mineral Springs Manufacturing Company
United States Supreme Court
MICHIGAN CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY v. MINERAL SPRINGS MANUFACTURING COMPANY
IN error to the Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut; the case being thus:
In October, 1865, at Jackson, a station on the Michigan Central Railroad, about seventy-five miles west of Detroit, one Bostwick delivered to the agent of the Michigan Central Railroad Company, for transportation, a quantity of wool consigned to the Mineral Springs Manufacturing Company, at Stafford, Connecticut, and took a receipt for its carriage, on the back of which was a notice that all goods and merchandise are at the risk of the owners while in the warehouses of the company, unless the loss or injury to them should happen through the negligence of the agents of the company.
The receipt and notice were as follows:
'MICHIGAN CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY,
'JACKSON, October 11th, 1865.
'Received from V. M. Bostwick, as consignor, the articles marked, numbered, and weighing as follows:
'To be transported over said railroad to the depot, in Detroit, and there to be delivered to _____, agent, or order, upon the payment of the charges thereon, and subject to the rules and regulations established by the company, a part of which notice is given on the back hereof. This receipt is not transferable.
'Freight Agent.'The notice on the back was thus:
'The company will not be responsible for damages occasioned by delays from storms, accidents, or other causes, . . . and all goods and merchandise will be at the risk of the owners thereof while in the company's warehouses, except such loss or injury as may arise from the negligence of the agents of the company.'
Verbal instructions were given by Bostwick that the wool should be sent from Detroit to Buffalo, by lake, in steamboats, which instructions were embodied in a bill of lading sent with the wool. Although there were several lines of transportation from Detroit eastward by which the wool could have been sent, there was only one transportation line propelled by steam on the lakes, and this line was, and had been for some time, unable, in their regular course of business, to receive and transport the freight which had accumulated in large quantities at the railroad depot in Detroit. This accumulation of freight there, and the limited ability of the line of propellers to receive and transport it, were well known to the officers of the road, but neither the consignor, consignee, nor the station-master at Jackson, were informed on this subject. The wool was carried over the road to the depot in Detroit, and remained there for a period of six days, when it was destroyed by an accidental fire, not the result of any negligence on the company's part. During all the time the wool was in the depot it was ready to be delivered for further transportation to the carrier upon the route indicated.
In consequence of the loss the manufacturing company sued the railroad company. The charter of the company, which was pleaded and offered in evidence, contained a section thus:
'The said company may charge and collect a reasonable sum for storage upon all property which shall have been transported by them upon delivery thereof at any of their depots, and which shall have remained at any of their depots more than four days; Provided, that elsewhere than at their Detroit depot, the consignee shall have been notified if known, either personally or by notice left at his place of business or residence, or by notice sent by mail, of the receipt of such property at least four days before any storage shall be charged, and at the Detroit depot such notice shall be given twenty-four hours (Sundays excepted) before any storage shall be charged; but such storage may be charged after the expiration of said twenty-four hours upon goods not taken away; Provided, that in all cases the said company shall be responsible for goods on deposit in any of their depots awaiting delivery, as warehousemen, and not as common carriers.'
The controversy, of course, was as to the nature of the bailment when the fire took place. If the railroad company were to be considered as warehousemen at the time the wool was burned, they were not liable in the action, as the fire which caused its destruction was not the result of any negligence on their part. If, on the contrary, their duty as carriers had not ceased at the time of the accident, and there were no circumstances connected with the transaction which lessened the rigor of the rule applicable to that employment, they were responsible; carriers being substantially insurers of the property intrusted to their care.
The court was asked by the railroad company to charge the jury that its liability was the limited one of a warehouseman, importing only ordinary care. The court refused so to charge, and, on the contrary, charged that the railroad company were liable for the wool as common carriers, during its transportation from Jackson to Detroit, and after its arrival there, for such reasonable time as, according to their usual course of business, under the actual circumstances in which they held the wool, would enable them to deliver it to the next carrier in the line, but that the manufacturing company took the risk of the next carrier line not being ready and willing to take said wool, and submitted it to the jury to say whether under all the circumstances of the case in evidence before them, such reasonable time had elapsed before the occurrence of the fire.
The jury, under the instructions of the court, found that the railroad company were chargeable as carriers, and this writ of error was prosecuted to reverse that decision.
Mr. F. Chamberlin, for the plaintiff in error:
1. The railroad company was not liable even by the severe rule of the common law, and independently of the proviso in their charter, and of the notice.
The law on the subject is thus stated by Judge Story, in his work on bailments:
'If a carrier between A. and B. receives goods to be carried from A. to B., and thence forwarded by a distinct conveyance to C., as soon as he arrives with the goods at B. and deposits them in his warehouse there, his responsibility as carrier ceases, for that is the termination of his duty as such. He then becomes as to the goods a mere warehouseman, undertaking for their further transportation.' 
The language of the same book in another place is equally pertinent and significant: 
'When the goods have arrived at the place of their fixed destination and are there deposited in the carrier's warehouse, to await the convenience of the owner in sending for them, or for the purpose of being forwarded by some other carrier to another place, then his duty as carrier ends on the arrival of the goods at his (the carrier's) warehouse, and his duty as warehouseman commences.'
There is no difference which is of substance to the manufacturing company between goods to be delivered to the owner at their final destination and goods deliverable to the owner or his agent for further carriage.
The controlling fact is, that the plaintiff's duty of carriage is completed, and the goods are stored for the convenience of the owner. The office of the plaintiffs is in both cases the same, the carriage is the same, and the delivery to the person entitled to receive them is the same in the one case as in the other. If the goods are to go farther, by an independent line, the next carrier stands in place of the owner or consignee, so far as the first carrier is concerned, and as soon as the function of carriage proper is performed, that is, in this case, as soon as we place them in the depot 'ready to be delivered' over, they are 'awaiting delivery.'
There was indeed, in this case, no offer to deliver, as owing to their limited means of transportation, by the line of propellers, any such offer would have been a useless act. Lex nemi rem cogit ad vana.
If it be said that the railroad company knew of this inability of the line of propellers and should have not taken this wool, the answer is that as common carriers, having, themselves, ample means of carriage, the railroad company could not have declined to receive any goods to be carried so far as their line extended; that is to say, to Detroit. They were bound to take the wool to that point.
2. But if liable by the rules of the old common law, still by the very terms of the railroad company's charter, the company, while the wool should be in deposit in a depot awaiting delivery,' was not to be responsible as common carriers, but only as warehousemen. Now, this case is that while the wool was in the depot ready to be delivered,' &c., it was destroyed. This brings matters within the terms of the proviso, unless we raise a distinction-one which has no foundation in reason-between a case in which the goods are at the final terminus of their carriage, and this in which they were to be delivered to another carrier, selected by the defendant in error, for further carriage.
3. Independently of this, there was a notice, in plain terms, to the consignor, and this was the condition of the contract, that all goods and merchandise would be at the risk of the owners thereof, while in the company's warehouses, except such loss or injury as might arise from the negligence of the agents of the company. Now, the receipt without dissent by a consignor of a bill of lading, by which the carrier stipulates against liability for loss by fire, discharges the carrier from liability for such loss not caused by his own negligence. And in an action against the carrier, evidence is not admissible, in the absence of fraud, to show that the consignor did not read the terms of the bill of lading. 
Since the case of York Compy. v. Central Railroad Co.,  in this court, it can no longer be doubted that the common-law liability of a carrier for the safe carriage of goods may be limited and qualified by special contract with the owner, provided that such special contract do not attempt to cover losses by negligence or misconduct.
Mr. A. P. Hyde, contra.
Mr. Justice DAVIS delivered the opinion of the court.
^1 See, 538.
^2 See, 448; and see Garside v. Trent Navigation Co., 4 Term, 581, and Moore v. Michigan Central Railroad Co., 3 Michigan, 39.
^3 Grace v. Adams, 100 Massachusetts, 505.
^4 3 Wallace, 107.