4885 Bags of Linseed/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

66 U.S. 108

4885 Bags of Linseed

The rights of the parties in this case depend altogether on the contract created by the bill of lading. That instrument does not refer to the charter party, nor can the charter party influence in any degree the decision of the question before us. Augustine Wills was not a party to it, and it is not material to inquire whether he did or did not know of its existence and contents; for there is nothing in it to prevent Wills & Co., the sub-charterers, or Augustine Wills, the consignee, from entering into the separate and distinct contract stated in the bill of lading, and the assignees took the rights of Wills & Co. in this contract, and nothing more. The circumstance that it came to hands of the ship-owners by assignment from the sub-charterers, who knew and were bound by all the stipulations of the charter party, cannot alter the construction of the bill of lading, nor affect the rights or obligations of Augustine Wills.

Undoubtedly the ship-owner has a right to retain the goods until the freight is paid, and has, therefore, a lien upon them for the amount; and, as contracts of affreightment are regarded by the courts of the United States as maritime contracts, over which the courts of admiralty have jurisdiction, the ship-owner may enforce his lien by a proceeding in rem in the proper court. But this lien is not in the nature of a hypothecation, which will remain a charge upon the goods after the ship-owner has parted from the possession, but is analogous to the lien given by the common law to the carrier on land, who is not bound to deliver them to the party until his fare is paid; and if he delivers them, the incumbrances of the lien does not follow them in the hands of the owner or consignee. It is nothing more than the right to withhold the goods, and is inseparably associated with his possession, and dependent upon it.

The lien of the carrier by water for his freight, under the ordinary bill of lading, although it is maritime, yet it stands upon the same ground with the carrier by land, and arises from his right to retain the possession until the freight is paid, and is lost by an unconditional delivery to the consignee. It is suggested in the argument for the appellant, that, as a general rule, maritime liens do not depend on possession of the thing upon which the lien exists; but this proposition cannot be maintained in the courts of admiralty of the United States. And, whatever may be the doctrine in the courts on the continent of Europe, where the civil law is established, it has been decided in this court that the maritime lien for a general average in a case of jettison, and the lien for freight, depend upon the possession of the goods, and arise from the right to retain them until the amount of the lien is paid. Rae vs. Cutler, (7 How., 729;) Dupont de Nemours & Co. vs. Vance and others, (19 How., 171.)

In the last mentioned case, the court, speaking of the lien for general average, and referring to the decision of Rae vs. Cutler on that point, said: 'This admits the existence of a lien arising out of the admiralty law, but puts it on the same footing as a maritime lien on cargo for the price of its transportation, which, as is well known, is waived by an authorized delivery without insisting on payment.'

After these two decisions, both of which were made upon much deliberation, the law upon this subject must be regarded as settled in the courts of the United States, and it is unnecessary to examine the various authorities which have been cited in the argument. But it may be proper to say, that while this court has never regarded its admiralty authority as restricted to the subjects over which the English courts of admiralty exercised jurisdiction at the time our Constitution was adopted, yet it has never claimed the full extent of admiralty power which belongs to the courts organized under, and governed altogether by, the principles of the civil law.

But courts of admiralty, when carrying into execution maritime contracts and liens, are not governed by the strict and technical rules of the common law, and deal with them upon equitable principles, and with reference to the usages and necessities of trade. And it often happens that the necessities and usages of trade require that the cargo should pass into the hands of the consignee before he pays the freight. It is the interest of the ship-owner that his vessel should discharge her cargo as speedily as possible after her arrival at the port of delivery. And it would be a serious sacrifice of his interests if the ship was compelled, in order to preserve the lien, to remain day after day with her cargo on board, waiting until the consignee found it convenient to pay the freight, or until the lien could be enforced in a court of admiralty. The consignee, too, in many instances, might desire to see the cargo unladen before he paid the freight, in order to ascertain whether all of the goods mentioned in the bill of lading were on board, and not damaged by the fault of the ship. It is his duty, and not that of the ship-owner, to provide a suitable and safe place on shore in which they may be stored; and several days are often consumed in unloading and storing the cargo of a large merchant vessel. And if the cargo cannot be unladen and placed in the warehouse of the consignee, without waiving the lien, it would seriously embarrass the ordinary operations and convenience of commerce, both as to the ship-owner and the merchant.

It is true, that such a delivery, without any condition or qualification annexed, would be a waiver of the lien; because, as we have already said, the lien is but an incident to the possession, with the right to retain. But in cases of the kind above mentioned it is frequently, perhaps more usually, understood between the parties, that transferring the goods from the ship to the warehouse shall not be regarded as a waiver of the lien, and that the ship-owner reserves the right to proceed in rem to enforce it, if the freight is not paid. And if it appears by the evidence that such an understanding did exist between the parties, before or at the time the cargo was placed in the hands of the consignee, or if such an understanding is plainly to be inferred from the established local usage of the port, a court of admiralty will regard the transaction as a deposit of the goods, for the time, in the warehouse, and not as an absolute delivery; and, on that ground, will consider the ship-owner as still constructively in possession, so far as to preserve his lien and his remedy in rem.

But in the case before us, there is nothing from which such an inference can be drawn. The goods were delivered, it is admitted, generally, and without any condition or qualification. Upon such a delivery there could be neither actual nor constructive possession remaining in the ship-owner; and, consequently, there could be no right of retainer to support his lien.

The decree of the Circuit Court, dismissing the libel, must therefore be affirmed.

Decree affirmed.


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).