Propeller Mohawk

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

75 U.S. 153

Propeller Mohawk

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the case being thus:

On the 31st of October, 1860, two parties, owners of it, shipped on board the propeller Mohawk, the vessel being then at Chicago, and as was admitted in a sipulation of record, 'in good and seaworthy condition,' two consignments of wheat, amounting to 20,200 bushels, to be delivered at Buffalo in good order and condition, dangers of navigation excepted, upon payment of freight and charges. The property was insured by an insurance company at the last-named place for $20,000. The propeller proceeded on her voyage, and after the same had been more than half completed, grounded on the 7th of November on the St. Clair Flats, near Detroit. In the effort to get her off she became disabled by the bursting of her boiler, and afterwards sunk, and was compelled to suspend her voyage for a few days to make necessary repairs.

All the wheat but 1100 bushels got wet and was damaged by the sinking of the propeller. Upon information then given to the consignee and insurers at Buffalo, the agent of the owners of the wheat immediately abandoned it to the underwriters as for a total loss, and the latter then accepted the abandonment and paid the loss to the owners as for a total loss.

On the 11th of November, the underwriters ordered their agent at Detroit to take possession of the damaged wheat, and to sell it as it lay in the vessel at the flats, and the agent thereupon did sell the damaged portion of it to one Phelps, for $1200, and took his note therefor, at 30 days. A delivery into lighters to the purchaser began on the same day. The next day (the 12th) the agent reported the sale, and on the 13th received a telegram from his company acknowledging the advices, and approving thereof. After the sale had been thus made, the company hearing that the master intended to claim freight, directed the agent to have nothing to do with the grain, unless the owners of the vessel would relinquish all claim for freight. It was arranged, however, between the agent and the master, that as the sale was a good one, it should stand, and that the freight should be left for after consideration. The whole of the damaged portion of the cargo, amounting to 19,100 bushels, was delivered by the propeller to the purchaser, Phelps, and the residue, 1100 bushels, was retained on board, and carried by the propeller to Buffalo, where it arrived safely. On that residue the insurance company tendered full freight and all other lawful charges, including a sum to cover general average charges; but refused to pay either pro rata or full freight on the wheat delivered on the flats. The master accordingly refused to deliver the 1100 bushels; the value of it being less than the freight on it and the pro rata freight on the larger quantity sold; and he asserting that he was entitled to freight on the entire shipment, either in full, or pro rata.

Soon after this (though with how correct a knowledge of facts was a matter, as it seemed, subsequently disputed by counsel), the counsel of the insurance company on the one hand, and of the shippers on the other, agreed upon a statement of facts, and on it the company brought suit in the Superior Court of Buffalo, to test the liabilities of the shippers upon the facts as then supposed. The insurance company, however, acting herein against the urgency of their agent at Detroit, 'who never expressed but one opinion, which was, that the carriers were liable and ought to be sued,' after some time discontinued this suit.

After this, this is to say, in July, 1862, and through the same agent, the claim of the company on the carriers was sold to one Barrell, for about $2300.

Libels were now filed, August, 1862, in the District Court of Illinois in the names of the owners of the wheat, claiming damages for the non-delivery of it. After hearing, the libels were dismissed. Thereupon an appeal was taken to the Circuit Court.

Barrell now presented his petition to that court, stating that the underwriters had assigned their interest in the cargo to him, and that he was equitably interested and entitled to intervenue, and have the benefit of both of the above libels. On this petition the Circuit Court consolidated both causes, and made order that he be subrogated to all the rights of the libellants, and that he have leave to file an amended libel. He did accordingly file such a libel, alleging the shipping of the cargo on board the Mohawk; that the propeller left port in good and seaworthy condition, and that after the voyage was more than half completed she was carelessly grounded on the St. Clair Flats. He also alleged the abandonment, and averred that the underwriters had suffered damages on account of the injury to the wheat, as well as for the non-delivery of the 1100 bushels detained by the propeller; and that he, as assignee of the insurance company, was entitled to recover therefore.

To this libel answer was made, denying negligence in grounding the vessel; admitting the non-delivery of the 1100 bushels of wheat, and asserting a right to hold it for freight; both that earned on the wheat actually delivered at St. Clair Flats, and on the 1100 bushels transported to Buffalo; abandonment was admitted; any assignment from the insurance company was denied; and the character of that transaction set forth with allegations, in substance, that it savored of maintenance. The substance of this answer was also proved.

The note at thirty days for $1200, given by the purchaser Phelps, was still in possession of the insurance company.

The Circuit Court affirmed the decree of the District Court, and the case was now here, on the action of Barrell, for review.

The appellant made two claims:

1. To have damages for injury to the cargo by the sinking of the propeller.

2. To have the 1100 bushels which the propeller had retained, or their value, upon paying the freight earned on that parcel only.


Mr. S. W. Fuller, with whom was Mr. Roe, for the appellant:


The first and chief question is, whether the carriers, having lost the body of the wheat through an explosion of a boiler, their own fault, they are discharged from obligation to pay the loss, owing to the insurers, who in this matter are the owners, having directed the sale of that portion of the wheat, in the circumstances of this case?

The moment of the disaster was, of course, an exigent one. The thoughts of all parties were directed obviously, and in an amicable spirit and mode of action, to saving the cargo, or of doing the best by it that circumstances allowed. In regard to everything but the matter of freight, all parties were of one mind; and the difference about this was adjusted in the same spirit which seems to have animated them in everything that was done, a spirit of present effort for the benefit of all concerned. A remission was accordingly made until a future time of the only question of difference arising. But this did not interfere with the common effort for the common advantage. It is in this way, that upon the evidence we see the parties; and upon it, we see them in no other. Least of all do we discover in what they do an attempt to fix liabilities where none existed, or to discharge them where they did. No doubt, it was the right and duty of the carrier to transport the cargo to Buffalo, according to the terms of the bills of lading, in order to earn and become entitled to freight; but the disaster to the propeller, whereby the wheat was damaged, having rendered it necessary and proper for all concerned, to join in saving as much of it as could be, the effort of the insurance company to help him, neither entitled him to full freight, nor released him from liability for loss occasioned by his negligence. Whatever acceptance was made, was in some sort compulsory and for the carrier's benefit.

We have assumed that the explosion was through the carrier's fault. Certainly it was so. An explosion is not a 'danger' incident to navigation, any more than the breaking of a chain on quiet water, or the falling of a mast when there is no wind. [1] It occurs either from defect in the boiler, or from negligence in the engineer. Perils arising on the sea are not necessarily perils arising from the sea.

But if the vessel is not liable for the whole value of the wheat, it ought surely to demand freight upon only what it has delivered. All our preceding observations apply to this part of the case.


Mr. Beckwith, contra:


1. The insurers accepted and took possession of the damaged wheat and sold it to Phelps, and requested the propeller to deliver the property at the St. Clair Flats; they then took his note for the price. The sale was then completed, and the purchaser invested with title as against the insurers. How can they set up a claim of any kind for the non-delivery of the wheat, even supposing that the explosion did happen through their own fault, after thus taking it off the carrier's hands and preventing his delivery of it? But

2. The explosion was not through the carrier's fault. The immediate cause of damage was the sinking of the vessel; the vessel was sunk by the explosion of its boiler; the boiler exploded in an effort to set afloat the grounded vessel; and the vessel was grounded in the channel of the St. Clair Flats, without fault of its officers or men. It is admitted that the propeller left port in good and seaworthy condition; and she continued her voyage until she was grounded. Nothing had occurred, in the meantime, to disturb the good and seaworthy condition in which she set out. The admission applies as well to the condition of the boiler at the time of leaving; and, as nothing is shown to have occurred after the vessel left port to render the boiler defective, it is wrong to presume that the explosion occurred from a defect in the boiler.

3. Independently of all this, another matter, in its nature preliminary, though here put last, deserves attention from the bench. Barrell's standing in court is that of a volunteer purchasing and prosecuting a claim which his alleged assignor declined to prosecute or insist upon. The assignment did not transfer a legal title, and has merely an equitable operation. In considering the locus standi of the assignee, equitable considerations will therefore govern. The assignment savors of maintenance; the right thereunder is claimed by a volunteer; and in a court of equity the appellant would not, for these reasons, be entitled to relief. [2] And in such a case, where a court of admiralty is called on to aid a party standing upon an equitable right, it will follow the rules of equity, and deny relief. [3]

Reply.-As to the question of the appellant's status. The law subrogated the insurance company to the rights of the owners of the damaged cargo, and, in ignorance, the insurance company sold to the appellant a claim, which it regarded as worthless. Then, after suits had been brought in the names of the owners of the cargo, the court, for economy and convenience, allowed the two suits to be consolidated, and the real owner of the claim to be admitted to prosecute the suit. In this there was nothing champertous; nothing but what was sanctioned in Cobb v. Howard et al. [4] As Grier, J., said, in the Propeller Monticello v. Mollison. [5]

'The respondent is not presumed to know, or bound to inquire, as to the relative equities of parties claiming the damages. He is bound to make satisfaction for the injury he had done. When he has once made it to the injured party, he cannot be made liable to another suit at the instance of any merely equitable claimant.'

Both the 34th and 43d rules in admiralty justify what was done.

Mr. Justice NELSON delivered the opinion of the court.

Notes[edit]

^1  Bulkely v. Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, 24 Howard, 386, affirming The Bark Edwin, 1 Sprague, 477.

^2  Ward v. Van Bokkelen, 2 Paige, 289.

^3  Brig Ann Pratt, 1 Curtis, 342.

^4  3 Blatchford, 524.

^5  17 Howard, 155.

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).