The opinion of the court was delivered by: HULBERT
The Steamship Sandgate Castle, having taken on board a general cargo for carriage to African ports, sailed from New York on June 23, 1937, and three days later was destroyed by fire about 600 miles at sea.
There was no loss of life.
On December 16, 1937, the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company, Ltd., a British corporation which owned and operated said vessel, filed a petition for exoneration from or limitation of liability pursuant to the provisions of Title 46 U.S.C.A. § 182 (known as the Fire Statute) and Section 183 (known as the Limitation Statute) respectively.
The cargo claimants filed answers to the petition and the trial of the issues thus raised were tried before me.
It was stipulated for the purposes of the trial, that claimants have the legal status alleged in the respective claims filed with the Commissioner appointed by the Court; that all of the cargo described in such claims was stowed aboard the Sandgate Castle and became a total loss June 26, 1937; that all of the cargo was owned as alleged in the respective claims and that all of the shipments in relation to which claims have been filed in the name of insurance companies, were insured as alleged in the respective claims and the insurance company claimants being liable so to do, subsequently paid losses to the respective cargo owners in the amounts alleged in the respective claims and secured assignments from the respective cargo owners.
It is the settled law in this case that cargo-claimant has the burden of establishing that the fire resulted from the vessel owner's design or neglect.Sandgate Castle, 1938. n.1 [Footnote omitted]
The master, other officers and crew, of whom only the chief and fourth assistant engineer and donkeyman had seen previous service upon the Sandgate Castle, were rescued and brought to New York by the Steamship "President Pierce."
Shortly thereafter they were interviewed by the proctors for the petitioner and their statements taken before a notary public. Upon their return to England there were investigations by the petitioner, the Wreck Commissioner (a public official) and the British Board of Trade.
Upon this trial, which occupied two months, it was brought out that some of these witnesses had made conflicting statements in their testimony on one or more previous occasions. Exhaustive briefs were exchanged, replied to, respectively, and submitted, in which the facts were reviewed in great detail. Nevertheless, with the model of the vessel, received in evidence, in my mind, and the plans, charts, photos, repair bills, letters, cables, log books, protest of the master, and other exhibits at hand for convenient reference, I have read, and in many instances re-read, the testimony, tracing the course on the ship of every witness who had any knowledge of the four fires which took place on the morning of the disaster, noting his observations and his comments and checked the same with the testimony of the others, and then reviewed the course of events on the previous voyage, the condition of the vessel upon her arrival in London, the repairs made there and at Hull with relation to the recommendations submitted by the chief engineer, as well as in Philadelphia and New York.
Few men have the time to be brief and this opinion would be unduly prolix if it attempted to review the conflicting evidence, or even detail the facts as I have determined them in my own mind in arriving at my decision.
The proof satisfies me that a quantity of oil in excess of 70 gallons overflowed when the manhole cover was off the top of the port settling tank; that some of that oil came in contact with the boilers and steam pipes resulting in a fire of at least 15 minutes' duration in the settling tank space which was of sufficient intensity to ignite a highly inflammable and readily combustible cargo stored in the 3-A compartment of the shelter deck, separated from the starboard settling tank by a 3/8th inch steel casing.
Within an hour this fire had spread over the ship and inability to control it compelled the abandonment of the vessel.
It has also been established to my satisfaction that when the Sandgate Castle arrived in London, April 24, 1937, from her ...