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R.L. PRITCHARD & CO. v. S.S. HELLENIC LAUREL

March 10, 1972

R.L. PRITCHARD & COMPANY, Inc., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
S.S. HELLENIC LAUREL et al., Defendants. SOLINA, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, v. HELLENIC LINES, LIMITED, Defendant


Metzner, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: METZNER

METZNER, District Judge:

This is an action in admiralty to recover the value of a cargo of jute which was destroyed in a fire on the 57th Street pier, Brooklyn, New York, on August 3, 1966.

 Plaintiff R.L. Pritchard and Company is the owner of the cargo. The defendant Hellenic Lines, Ltd. owns and operates the vessel on which the jute was shipped and the pier on which the fire occurred.

 A similar action was commenced against Hellenic Lines by Solina, Inc., the owner of another cargo of jute which was destroyed in the same fire. The two cases were consolidated for trial. However, the parties in the Solina case have stipulated that they will abide the result in the Pritchard case.

 The jute was shipped aboard the defendant's vessel Hellenic Laurel, arriving in Brooklyn on August 2, 1966. It was unloaded and piled on the north side of the pier close to the water's edge, reaching a height of approximately 12 feet. The pile was covered with a tarpaulin on the front and sides to a height of 8 feet. There was no covering on the rear, which was 3 1/2 feet from the pier wall.

 Jute is a highly flammable substance and is recognized as a dangerous cargo both by the United States Coast Guard and by the New York City Fire Department. Fire Department regulations require a pier owner to give the department 48 hours' notice before unloading a cargo of jute. No such notice was given in this case.

 The regulations also require that the sprinkler system on a pier be inspected within 24 hours before jute is discharged onto the pier. The last inspection of the sprinkler system on the 57th Street pier before August 3, 1966 occurred on July 11, 1966.

 In addition, Fire Department regulations state that whenever jute is on a pier there must be a special watchman to guard the cargo and protect against fire. No special watchman was on defendant's pier on August 3, 1966 and no extra guards had been hired. A roundsman, a gateman and a cribman were on duty, but they were not assigned specifically to watch the jute.

 The gateman was stationed at the front gate and did not patrol the area of the pier in which cargo was unloaded. The cribman guarded the valuable cargo which was stored in the crib. The roundsman had a general supervisory job and made four regular inspection tours of the pier each day. However, he did not remain constantly in the area of the jute or conduct any detailed inspection of it.

 Fire broke out in the jute at approximately 12:20 p.m. on August 3, 1966. At this time, and for at least 20 minutes before the fire was discovered, no one was in this area of the pier except 3 men who were sampling cashew nuts. The longshoremen who worked on the pier had broken for lunch at 11:55 a.m., and within about 5 minutes they had all left the working area of the pier.

 The fire was first noticed coming from the rear of the jute by one of the nut samplers. Within seconds the entire pile was in flames. Workmen attempted to extinguish the blaze and were joined after 15 minutes by New York City firemen. The cargo, however, was a total loss.

 There has been some speculation at trial that a carelessly thrown cigarette was the origin of the fire. There is no doubt that longshoremen smoked on the pier even though it was against regulations and they were instructed not to. However, there is no proof that any smoking took place in the vicinity of the jute. The nut samplers, who were the only people on the pier during the lunch hour, did not smoke. The last longshoreman left the pier at approximately noon, 20 minutes before the fire broke out. If he had thrown a newly lighted cigarette against the jute pile as he left, the fire would have begun much sooner than it did. It takes a cigarette 5 to 12 minutes to burn from one end to another, and jute, once ignited, instantaneously bursts into flames. Therefore, it cannot be said with any certainty that the fire was started by an unextinguished cigarette.

 Nor is there any proof of spontaneous combustion or an electrical short circuit. Both the Coast Guard and the New York City Fire Department found the origin of the fire to be "unknown." This court adopts that finding. Any other conclusion would be purely speculative and unsupported by the facts in this record.

 However, the mere fact that a fire has an unknown origin does not mean that it could not have been prevented by the exercise of due care. The plaintiff R.L. Pritchard and Company claims that the defendant failed to exercise due care to guard against fire in the jute and that this negligence caused the fire which destroyed the cargo. The defendant contends that it took all ...


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