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Rosenbruch v. American Export Isbrandtsen Lines Inc.

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT


decided: April 19, 1976.

PETER ROSENBRUCH, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
AMERICAN EXPORT ISBRANDTSEN LINES, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE

Appeal by shipper of household goods from judgment for cargo loss entered in his favor in the Southern District of New York, Harold R. Tyler, Jr., District Judge, to the extent the judgment limited shipper's recovery against ocean carrier to $500 per package pursuant to limitation of liability clause in ocean carrier's bill of lading as authorized by COGSA.

Mansfield, Timbers and Gurfein, Circuit Judges.

Author: Timbers

TIMBERS, Circuit Judge:

Once again we have before us what Judge Tyler aptly described as "another variant of the package limitation issue" which has been before us in various contexts in recent years.*fn1 We are called upon again to construe the $500 per package limitation of liability clause in an ocean carrier's bill of lading as authorized by Section 4(5) of the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA), 46 U.S.C. § 1304(5)(1970). The variant in the instant case stems from the fact that the lost cargo consisted of household goods owned by the shipper-consignee.

The issue arises this time on an appeal by the shipper from a judgment in his favor for cargo loss entered March 21, 1975 in the Southern District of New York, Harold R. Tyler, Jr., District Judge, 357 F. Supp. 982, to the extent that the judgment limited the shipper's recovery to $500 per package. The essential questions presented are (1) whether the district court correctly held that the container in which the household goods were shipped was a "package" within the meaning of the limitation of liability clause in the ocean carrier's bill of lading as authorized by COGSA; and (2) whether the district court correctly held that stowage of the container on deck rather than below deck was not such an "unreasonable deviation" from the contract of carriage as to deprive the carrier of the limitation of liability provided for in the bill of lading.

We agree with the district court's holding on both questions. We affirm.

I.

The facts are not in dispute. The case was presented to Judge Tyler on cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of limitation of liability.*fn2 We shall summarize briefly only those facts necessary to an understanding of our rulings on the questions presented.

The shipper and consignee was plaintiff Peter Rosenbruch. The ocean carrier was defendant American Export Isbrandtsen Lines, Inc. (Export). The vessel involved was the S.S. Container Forwarder; it was owned and operated by Export and was designed for container carriage only. Plaintiff contracted with an international freight forwarder, Seven Santini Bros., Inc. (Santini), to handle the shipment of his household goods from Norwood, New Jersey, to Hamburg, Germany.

Santini, on behalf of plaintiff, handled all details of the shipment, including preparing the bill of lading,*fn3 other paper work, customs clearance and packing the goods for shipment. At the end of December 1970, Santini requested and obtained without charge from a division of Export a standard 40ft. x 8ft. x 8ft. container; took it at plaintiff's expense to the latter's home in New Jersey; loaded it with plaintiff's household goods; sealed it; and delivered it to Export at Pier 13 on Staten Island on January 8, 1971.

Before loading and sealing the container, Santini had booked passage for the container by Export aboard the S.S. Container Forwarder scheduled to depart on January 9, 1971 from New York for Hamburg via the North Atlantic crossing.

The vessel sailed from New York as scheduled on January 9. Heavy weather was encountered on the transatlantic crossing, during the course of which the container loaded with plaintiff's household goods, and 31 other containers, were lost at sea. All the containers were stowed on the weather deck, not under deck.

Plaintiff, invoking the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the district court, commenced this action on December 28, 1971. He sought to recover from Export the sum of $102,917.08*fn4 representing the value of his household goods which Export admits were lost at sea.

As the result of the cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Tyler sustained Export's claim that its liability is limited to $500, for which there was entered the judgment in favor of plaintiff from which the instant appeal has been taken.

II.

We turn directly to appellant's contention that the container in which his household goods were shipped was not a package within the meaning of the $500 limitation of liability clause of the bill of lading as authorized by COGSA.

Given the limitation of liability clause in the instant bill of lading*fn5 and the provision of COGSA which authorizes such limitation,*fn6 the critical facts determinative of this issue are those with respect to the selection and packing of the container, together with the provisions of the bill of lading which relate to the package issue.

Here the shipper's agent alone loaded the container which he obtained from the carrier, rather than constructing separate wooden crates or containers. The metal container was loaded with the shipper's goods only, not those of any other shipper. The contents of the container were not separately packed or labeled. The shipper's agent selected the voyage and the vessel for the shipment. He stated on the bill of lading that one package or container was involved and described the contents as "used household goods." The carrier was not involved at all in packing the container.

While the facts of these package cases vary widely, we think that this is about as clear a one as we have seen for holding that the container constituted a package for the purposes of Section 4(5) of COGSA. Indeed, it comes very close to the hypothetical case envisioned by Judge Friendly in Leather's Best, supra note 1, at 815, where the shipper would load the container on his own premises and the bill of lading would disclose nothing with respect to the number of units within the container.

In any event, unless and until Congress resolves the limitation of liability problems created by the new container age, we think that the "functional economics test" -- also referred to as the "functional package unit test" -- enunciated in Kulmerland, supra note 1, at 648-49, while not solving the problem entirely, offers as good a judicial interpretation of the word "package" in Section 4(5) as we have seen. Under that test the shipment in a container of several items that are separately suitable for shipment would entitle the shipper on declaring them to extend the $500 limitation to each of the separate packages. And it must be remembered that the shipper, by using the container, is getting a 10% reduction in the freight rate, thus avoiding the cost of independent packaging that might otherwise be incurred. This should enable him to obtain additional insurance if necessary.

Moreover in the instant case the application of the Kulmerland rule strikes us as particularly appropriate since appellant's household goods, absent a container, would not have been shipped in separate packages. They would have been shipped in a large wooden crate or container approximating the size of the metal container that was actually used.

We hold that the district court correctly concluded that the container in which appellant's household goods were shipped was a package within the meaning of the $500 limitation of liability clause of the bill of lading as authorized by Section 4(5) of COGSA.

III.

Appellant also contends that the stowage of the container on the weather deck rather than below deck was such an unreasonable deviation from the contract of carriage as to deprive the carrier of the limitation of liability provided for in the bill of lading. In short, he claims that such stowage was not a "reasonable deviation" within the meaning of Section 4(4) of COGSA, 46 U.S.C. § 1304(4) (1970). We disagree.

The short answer to this claim is twofold. First, the district court specifically found that, although Santini had inserted in the bill of lading the provision "Stow under deck only", the carrier deleted this provision from the original bill of lading before returning it to the shipper. It therefore was not part of the contract of carriage. We hold that the district court's determination was correct, whether as a matter of law or as a finding of fact which was not clearly erroneous. DuPont, supra note 1, at 102.

Second, the district court also correctly held that an "under deck" stowage provision in the bill of lading was prohibited by the applicable Tariff Rules and Regulations of the North Atlantic Continental Conference.*fn7 The carrier was a member of the Conference. The Tariff applied to the Container Forwarder as a vessel operating within the jurisdiction of the Conference and was incorporated by reference in the bill of lading. Under these circumstances, it was not a deviation to have stowed the container on the weather deck.

We hold that the district court correctly rejected appellant's deviation claim.

Affirmed.

Disposition

Affirmed.


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