Howard Fire Insurance Company v. Transportation Company

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

79 U.S. 194

Howard Fire Insurance Company  v.  Transportation Company

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut; the case being thus:

The Howard Fire Insurance Company insured the steamer Norwich, owned by the Norwich and New York Transportation Company, for $5000 against fire. The policy covered the steamer, her hull boilers, machinery, tackle, furniture, apparel, & c., whether stationary or movable, whether the boat should be running or not running, and insured against all such loss or damage, not exceeding the sum insured, as should happen to the property by fire, other than fire happening by means of any invasion, insurrection, riot, or civil commotion, or of any military or usurped power.

While on one of her regular trips from Norwich to New York, on Long Island Sound, the steamer collided with a schooner, the latter striking her on her port side, and cutting into her hull below the water-line, in consequence of which she immediately and rapidly began to fill with water. Within ten or fifteen minutes after the collision, the water reached the floor of the furnace, and the steam thereby generated blew out the fire, which communicated with the wood-work of the boat. Her upper works and her combustible freight were soon enveloped in flames, and they continued to burn half or three-quarters of an hour, when she gradually sunk in twenty fathoms of water, reeling over. The steamer was so constructed that her main deck was completely housed in from stem to stern, up to her promenade, or hurricane deck above. Her freight was stowed on the main deck, and her cabin and staterooms were on the hurricane deck. From the effects of the collision alone she would not have sunk below her promenade deck, but would have remained there suspended in the water, and would have been towed to a place of safety, when she, her engines, tackle, and furniture, could have been repaired and restored to their condition prior to the collision for the sum of $15,000, the expense of towage included. The sinking of the steamer below her promenade deck was the result of the action of the fire in burning off her light upper works and housing, thus liberating her freight, allowing much of it to drift away, whereby her floating capacity was greatly reduced, so that she sunk to the bottom, and all the damage which she suffered beyond the $15,000 above named as chargeable to the collision, (amounting to $7300), including the cost of raising the boat, was the natural and necessary result of the fire, and of the fire only.

The Transportation Company having set up a claim for indemnity against the Insurance Company, for a loss by fire within the policy, and the company declining to pay, suit was brought in the court below against it; and on the facts as already stated, and specially found as facts by the Circuit Court, judgment was given for the plaintiff. The Insurance Company brought the case here to reverse the judgment.

Messrs. J. C. Carter and G. Pratt, for the plaintiff in error, citing Mills on Causation, Brown's Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect, Sir William Hamilton's Lectures, as well as numerous adjudged cases, in England and the United States, went into an ingenious and interesting though, as it struck the reporter, possibly somewhat metaphysical argument, on the subject of what was to be regarded as 'the cause of any event;' how far the antecedents of a given event are connected together as the successive links in one chain; and how far there are several concurrent trains leading to the effect; concluding that in no case will the inquiry whether a given event would have happened but for another which preceded it, disclose the cause of the given event, or what is called its proximate cause, or its principal cause, or anything save this alone, that such preceding event was, or was not, a necessary contributing cause. The true meaning of the cause causans, the predominating cause, the series of successive causes, and of Lord Bacon's apothegm, causa proxima non remota spectatur, were considered at length; and the effort made to show that here-the sinking of the steamer, being the result of two concurrent causes, of which the collision was the predominating, and therefore the proximate cause-by a right application of the just rule of law, as established by the two well-known rules of Mr. Phillips, an authoritative text-writer on Insurance, the loss was attributable to the collision, and to that alone; a matter in which the Transportation Company was its own insurers; the policy having been but against fire.

Messrs. J. A. Hovey and I. Halsey, contra.

Mr. Justice STRONG delivered the opinion of the court.

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).