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decided: May 18, 1908.



Author: White

[ 210 U.S. Page 103]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the court.

On July 4, 1898, in the Atlantic Ocean, about sixty miles off Sable Island, as the result of a collision between the British ship Cromartyshire and the French steamship La Bourgogne, bound from New York to Havre, La Bourgogne was hopelessly injured, sank in a short time, and most of her passengers, her captain, other principal officers, and many of the crew went down with the ship. Numerous suits in admiralty and actions at law were brought in various Federal and state courts against La Bourgogne, or her owners, to recover damages for loss of life, loss of baggage, and other personal effects. These claims aggregated a very large sum. In May, 1900, La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, a French corporation, the owner of La Bourgogne, petitioned the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York seeking to obtain the benefit of the laws of the United States limiting the liability of ship owners. It was averred that the collision was caused solely by the fault of the Cromartyshire, but even if there was fault on the part of La Bourgogne it was without the privity or knowledge of the company. The interest of

[ 210 U.S. Page 104]

     the company in the steamship and her pending freight was alleged to be only about one hundred dollars, the value of articles saved from the wreck. A list of the pending suits was annexed. It was prayed that a trustee be appointed, to whom the interest of the company in the steamship and her pending freight might be transferred. A monition warning all persons having claims by reason of the collision to prove the same, within a time to be fixed, was asked, as also that a commissioner be appointed to take such proof, and that the prosecution of all other actions because of the collision be restrained. Finally it was prayed that the company be decreed not to be liable for the loss of La Bourgogne, or, if responsible, its liability in conformity to the statute be limited to the property surrendered.

The court directed the company to transfer to a named trustee its interest in the steamship and her pending freight, and following this order a formal transfer was executed. There were, however, actually surrendered to the trustee only certain life-boats and life-rafts. A monition and a preliminary injunction were ordered, and a commissioner was named to take proof of claims within a time fixed. In conformity with a rule of the court relating to the procedure to limit liability, which is in the margin,*fn1 the commissioner in a short while

[ 210 U.S. Page 105]

     reported that claims aggregating more than two million dollars had been presented. Most were for losses occasioned by death and the others were for personal injuries and for loss of baggage or other personal effects.

Disregarding the technical attitude of the parties on this record we shall speak of La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, owner of La Bourgogne, as the petitioner and the adverse parties as claimants.

Without stating details, it suffices to say that the petitioner challenged the validity and amount of the claims reported. The claimants traversed the petition for limitation of liability, charging that the collision had been solely caused by the fault of La Bourgogne in going at an immoderate rate of speed in a dense fog, and that such fault was with the privity and knowledge of the petitioner. This latter was based on averments that the petitioner had negligently failed to make and enforce adequate regulations to prevent its steamers being run at an immoderate speed in a fog, that it had knowledge that its steamers were habitually so run, and because La Bourgogne was not fully manned and equipped as required by law, had no watertight bulkheads, and was not furnished with boats or proper disengaging apparatus, as required by the laws of the United States. It was further charged that the petitioner was not entitled to a limitation of liability, because it had not actually surrendered the freight pending, and besides had not surrendered the sum of a subsidy given by the French government for carrying the mails and for other services.

Pending action upon the report the case proceeded as to the general questions of fault for the collision and the right to a limitation of liability. During the proceedings, in answer

[ 210 U.S. Page 106]

     to interrogatories propounded on behalf of certain of the claimants, the petitioner admitted that it had received the following sums:

From the French government for the car-

riage of mails, etc., between Havre and

New York during the year 1898, being

for fifty-two trips between Havre and

New York, going and returning 5,473,400.00 francs

For passage money on the last trip from

Havre to New York 44,480.70 francs

For freight collected on the same sailing 14,088.95 francs

For passage on the trip from New York to

Havre, in which La Bourgogne was lost 100,703.08 francs

For freight on the same sailing 12,716.43 francs

The trustee named by the court thereupon demanded the actual surrender of one fifty-second part of the annual subsidy and all the freight and passage money above referred to. The petitioner refusing to comply, in April, 1901, the trustee and some of the claimants asked an order directing the payment of said amounts with interest from the date of the collision. On May 11, 1901, the court declined to make the order, and reserved the matter for further consideration.

In the autumn following, in October, 1901, the case came on for trial before Townsend, District Judge. After taking testimony in open court for several days an order was entered directing that any further testimony be taken out of court. This being done, the case in its then stage was heard. The court (Townsend, District Judge) expressed its opinion as to fault for the collision, as to whether an adequate surrender had been made of the interest of the petitioner in the steamship and her pending freight, as to whether the petitioner was entitled to a limitation of its liability, and as to whether claims resulting from loss of life were under any circumstances entitled to be established against the fund. No opinion was expressed as to the legal merit of or the amount of the other

[ 210 U.S. Page 107]

     claims against the fund. The conclusions of the court were thus by it summed up (117 Fed. Rep. 261):

"First, that the prayer for limitation should be granted; second, that claims for loss of life should be excluded from consideration in this proceeding; third, that the Bourgogne was to blame for the collision; fourth, that claims other than those for loss of life be referred to the commissioner 'to take testimony as to the amount of such claims and report the same to this court, together with his opinion, with all convenient speed;' fifth, that the petitioner has duly surrendered its interest in the Bourgogne and her pending freight by the transfer made to the trustee, and that the value of such interest extends no further than the value of the life-boats and life-rafts."

A decree was entered conformably to these views. A few weeks thereafter the court permitted the S.S. White Dental Company to file a claim for the value of certain merchandise shipped under a bill of lading alleged to be of the value of $17,108.40.

The commissioner heard testimony concerning the validity and the amount of the respective claims. On May 9, 1904, the commissioner filed his report. The claim of the S.S. White Dental Company was disallowed on the ground that La Bourgogne was in all respects seaworthy at the time of her sailing on the voyage on which she was lost, and that in consequence of the provisions of the Harter Act, the claim in question being for merchandise shipped as freight under a bill of lading, no recovery could be had. The remaining claims, noted in the margin,*fn1a were allowed upon the theory that recovery might be had as for baggage lost by the sinking of the steamship.

[ 210 U.S. Page 108]

     In thus deciding the commissioner followed the ruling of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made in The Kensington, 94 Fed. Rep. 885, in which it was held that the exemption from liability conferred by the Harter Act did not embrace baggage when not shipped as cargo. Obviously, also, the commissioner was of the opinion, for like reasons, that Rev. Stat., ยง 4281 -- exempting a master and the owner of a vessel from liability for the value of precious metals, jewelry, etc., unless written notice of the character of such articles be given and the same be entered on a bill of lading -- was also inapplicable. The petitioner excepted to so much of the report as allowed the claims, and the S.S. White Dental Company excepted to the disallowance of its claim. These exceptions were overruled, and the report was confirmed.

In July, 1904, a decree was signed by District Judge Thomas. It was adjudged that all claims favorably reported upon should be paid out of the fund, and conformably to this conclusion a specific decree in favor of each of the claimants was awarded, with interest from the date of the collision to the date of the decree. The adverse action of the commissioner upon the claim of the S.S. White Dental Company was affirmed. Giving effect to the previous ruling made by Judge Townsend it was adjudged "That all claims which have been filed in this proceeding on behalf of persons for damages for negligence resulting in loss of life caused by said collision be and the same are hereby disallowed and excluded from the consideration of the commissioner in this proceeding."

On the main issues -- that is, the fault of La Bourgogne --

[ 210 U.S. Page 109]

     the right of the petitioner to a limitation of liability, and the amount of the pending freight, it was decreed as follows:

"That the steamer La Bourgogne . . . was in fault and to blame in reference to the collision in question, in that she was proceeding at an immoderate rate of speed in a fog, contrary to law, and that the petitioner La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique is liable 'for the damages caused by the aid collision to each of the claimants whose claims have been reported upon' and which have been 'confirmed in the amount so reported.'"

It was further recited in the decree:

"That the petitioner is entitled to limit its liability for such damages as are decreed as aforesaid to the amount of the value of the said steamer and her freight for the voyage, and that there is not to be included as going to make up said amount either the freight or passenger money received by the petitioner for the trip of said steamer La Bourgogne from Havre to New York, or for the trip from New York to Havre, during which voyage said collision occurred, or the amount of the money paid to the petitioner by the government of France under the contract proved between the petitioner and said government for the voyage on which the Bourgogne was lost."

The costs incurred in determining whether the petitioner was as fault were given to the claimants, while the costs incurred in determining whether the petitioner was entitled to a limitation of liability were awarded to it and made "payable, primarily, out of any fund herein that is or may come into the hands of the trustee." The prosecution of other actions and suits was perpetually enjoined. The following endorsement was made on the back of the decree:

"(Endorsed.) -- Final decree. -- This decree substantially follows the practice of both the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York as regards the question of an interlocutory judgment and is in other respects deemed correct. -- E.B.T., U.S.J."

Those whose claims were allowed appealed from so much

[ 210 U.S. Page 110]

     of the decree as granted the limitation of liability and as determined the quantum of pending freight to be surrendered. The S.S. White Dental Company and various death claimants appealed from the disallowance of their claims. The petitioner also appealed from so much of the decree as held the La Bourgogne at fault and allowed recovery in favor of the various claimants.

These two classes of appeals were heard separately in the Circuit Court of Appeals. Those of the claimants were decided on June 23, 1905. Before passing on the merits the court was required to consider a motion to dismiss, made by the petitioner on the ground that the claimants had not appealed within the statutory time. This was based on the contention that the final decree was not that entered by Judge Thomas in 1904, from which the appeals were taken, but the one entered by Judge Townsend in 1902. The court held that Judge Townsend's decree of 1902 was but interlocutory and that of Judge Thomas was final.

On the merits, it was decided that it had been rightly held that La Bourgogne was in fault for going at an immoderate speed in a fog, but that such fault was not committed with the privity or knowledge of the petitioner. In these respects, therefore, the decree below was affirmed. As the Cromartyshire was not present, the court expressly refrained from stating any opinion as to any concurring fault on her part, remarking that her presence was not necessary, as with the allowance of death claims even one-half of the damage found in this proceeding would greatly exceed the sum transferred to the trustee in limitation of liability. It was further decided that the court below was right in rejecting the claim of the S.S. White Dental Company. It was held, however, that the court erred in excluding the claims for damage caused by loss of life, and therefore it was ordered that proof as to their amount should be taken to the end that they might participate in the fund. On the question of pending freight it was decided that the court below had correctly held that no part of the

[ 210 U.S. Page 111]

     freight and passage money collected for the sailing from Havre to New York, or of the subvention paid by the French government, should be surrendered as freight pending, yet that error had been committed in deciding that the freight and passage-money collected for the sailing from New York to Havre should not be paid over as a part of the pending freight. 139 Fed. Rep. 433.

On December 14, 1905, the appeal on behalf of the petitioner, in so far as not already passed upon, came on for hearing. The claimants objected to the hearing because the petitioner had not actually paid over to the trustee the sum of the freight and passage money for the last sailing from New York to Havre, which the court had held to be pending freight to be surrendered under the law for limitation of liability. The court, without referring to the subject, passed upon the appeal. In disposing of the merits while observing that in view of the large amount of the death claims which the claimants were at liberty to establish as a result of the previous decision, the petitioner was really without any substantial interest to dispute the correctness of the awards in favor of the various claimants, nevertheless, in consequence of the possibility that its ruling on that subject might not be final, the court considered the various awards and decided that no error had been committed in respect to any of them, Wallace, Circuit Judge, dissenting, however, as to the allowance made to the claimant Deslions. 144 Fed. Rep. 781.

As the case is before us not only because of the allowance of a writ of certiorari applied for by the claimants, but also on a cross writ asked on behalf of the petitioner, all the questions presented by the record are open and, as far as they are essential, must be disposed of. Primarily, the question impliedly passed upon by the Circuit Court of Appeals, concerning the timely taking of the appeals to that court, requires attention. To dispose of the subject we must decide whether the decree entered by Judge Townsend in 1902 or that entered by Judge Thomas in 1904 was the final decree.

[ 210 U.S. Page 112]

     The authorities concerning the distinction between interlocutory and final decrees were cited in the opinion in Keystone Manganese & Iron Co. v. Martin, 132 U.S. 91, and the subject was fully reviewed in McGourkey v. Toledo O.C.R. Co., 146 U.S. 536. The rule announced in these cases, for determining whether, for the purposes of an appeal, a decree is final, is, in brief, whether the decree disposes of the entire controversy between the parties, and illustrations of the application of the rule are found in the late cases of Clark v. Roller, 199 U.S. 541, 546, and Ex parte National Enameling Co., 201 U.S. 156. Now the case in the trial court primarily involved the right to a limitation of liability. The case further involved the nature and amount of the claims which were to be allowed against the fund. When the proceedings were commenced all the questions concerned in this latter subject were referred to a commissioner, to receive formal proof and make report. When the commissioner reported the aggregate amount of the claims, objections were filed on behalf of the petitioner. No action, however, was immediately taken by the court on these objections, but the case proceeded as to the right to a limitation of liability. When that subject was ready for action it was impossible to finally dispose of the case as an entirety by passing upon the contests which had arisen concerning the claims, because no other than formal proof in regard thereto had been made. Under these circumstances the court, for the purpose of furthering the progress of the cause, so that a final decree might be reached with reasonable celerity, passed upon the questions which were ripe for its action, that is, whether the petitioner was entitled to the ...

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