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States Marine Corp. v. United States

November 22, 1960


Author: Waterman

Before HINCKS, WATERMAN and MOORE, Circuit Judges.

WATERMAN, Circuit Judge.

Libelant, a time charterer of the SS Alcoa Pegasus, carried government-owned cargo to Inchon, Korea, under a space-charter contract between it and the United States. From December 9 to December 13, 1954, this cargo was discharged at Inchon by a stevedore contractor retained by the Government for the purpose. Libelant sets forth in its libel that during the discharge 358 feet of the vessel's fitted sweat battens were destroyed by longshoremen and that thereby the libelant was damaged in the sum of $93.93. This sum libelant seeks to recover from the United States.

The space-charter contract entered into by the parties provided that the Government would pay for any damage to the vessel or its equipment caused by the act or neglect of the Government or its agents or contractors during the loading or discharging of cargo if written notice specifying the damage shall have been given to the Government or its authorized representative before the vessel sails. Also incorporated in the contract was the standard "Disputes Clause"*fn1 that the Armed Services Procurement Regulations require in all government contracts entered into for the Armed Services. This clause provides that any unresolved "dispute concerning a question of fact arising under the contract" is to be decided by the Contracting Officer, from whose decision the contractor has the right of appeal to the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA).

On December 13, 1954, five hours before the Alcoa Pegasus departed from Inchon with the tide, libelant tendered a written damage report to the U.S.Army Officer who had been overseeing the cargo discharge. This officer refused to receive the report and said he would send another government representative to the vessel to receive it. No other representative appeared prior to sailing, and libelant later mailed written damage reports.

More than sixteen months thereafter, on April 27, 1956, libelant filed its formal claim and, the question of whether a proper written notice had been timely given to the Government being disputed and unresolved, the Contracting Officer on July 5, 1956 disallowed the claim on the ground that no notice had been rendered to any U.S. representative prior to departure from Inchon. Libelant then appealed; and, on July 30, 1957, the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals found that, though a written notice was given to the army officer supervising the discharge of cargo, this notice was not a notice served on "the Government or its authorized representative."

Thereafter, on September 25, 1957, libelant filed its libel alleging the Government's breach of its contract - this breach being set forth as having occurred when the Government failed to pay the $93.93 after the Appeals Board decision of July 30, 1957. To this libel the United States filed exceptions on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction over the subject matter and over the United States because the libelant had not instituted suit, as required by Section 5 of the Suits in Admiralty Act, 46 U.S.C.A. ยง 745, within two years from the time of the cargo discharge at Inchon, when the United States maintained the cause of action arose. The district court sustained the exceptions and dismissed the libel. Libelant appeals. It maintains that its libel was timely brought.

Libelant stated that it was required by contract to submit its claim to administrative adjudication and therefore its cause of action for breach of contract did not arise until it had fully performed its duties under the contract and had exhausted the administrative remedies the contract provided for. Furthermore, inasmuch as this submission to agency adjudication was contractually required, libelant stated it could not sue the Government for breach of the contract until the Government refused to pay after the final administrative determination.

Alternatively, accepting the proposition the Government advanced by its pleading and that the district court relied upon, that the cause of action arose in Inchon on December 13, 1954, appellant maintains that the two year time-bar was tolled during the fifteen of the thirty-three months that elapsed prior to the commencement of suit while libelant's claim was being considered first by the Contracting Officer and then by the ASBCA.

We do not agree with the libelant on either ground it advances, and we affirm the court below. We hold, with the district court, that the libel was not commenced until after more than two years had elapsed from the occurrence of the damage complained of, and hence that the Government was not subject to the jurisdiction of the district court. McMahon v. United States, 1951, 342 U.S. 25, 72 S. Ct. 17, 96 L. Ed. 26; Engel v. Davenport, 1926, 271 U.S. 33, 39, 46 S. Ct. 410, 70 L. Ed. 813; Sgambati v. United States, 2 Cir., 172 F.2d 297, 298, certiorari denied, 1949, 337 U.S. 938, 69 S. Ct. 1514, 93 L. Ed. 1743; Burch v. United States, D.C.E.D.Va.1958, 163 F.Supp. 476, 480; Finley v. United States, D.C.N.J.1956, 147 F.Supp. 184, 187; Pacific-Atlantic Steamship Co. v. United States, D.C.Del.1955, 127 F.Supp. 931, 933.

Appellant asserts in its libel that the refusal to pay the claim after it had been disallowed by the ASBCA constituted the cause of action upon which suit was brought. This position is not well taken. The cause of action arose when the sweat battens were damaged, and the disallowance of the claim for this damage did not create a cause of action distinct from the cause of action for the actual damage to the sweat battens. It is specious to maintain that a new cause of action was created by the administrative disallowance of the claim.

The two year time-bar of the Suits in Admiralty Act is unlike a time bar period prescribed under an ordinary Statute of Limitations. Under an ordinary time-bar statute a claim is not extinguished after the statutory period has elapsed. It is only unenforceable. The time-bar of the Suits in Admiralty Act renders a claim against the United States not only unenforceable, but extinguishes the claim itself, for when the sovereign, immune from suit, counsented to be sued it was made a condition of the right to sue that suits so authorized had to be brought within the time-bar period. McMahon v. United States, supra, Sgambati v. United States, supra.

It therefore follows that despite any maritime contractual agreements that parties may enter into with the United States such contractual agreements may not extend the time-bar period of two years prescribed by Section 5 of the Suite in Admiralty Act within which sui against the United States may be commenced. United States v. Wessel, Duva & Co., D.C.S.D.N.Y.1953, 115 F.Supp 678. Accord, Atlantic Carriers, Inc. v. United States, D.C.S.D.N.Y.1955, 131 Supp. 1. Jurisdiction to hear ...

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