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SEABOARD AIR LINE RAILWAY v. SEEGERS.

decided: November 4, 1907.

SEABOARD AIR LINE RAILWAY
v.
SEEGERS.



ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA.

Author: Brewer

[ 207 U.S. Page 75]

 MR. JUSTICE BREWER delivered the opinion of the court.

The question in this case is the constitutionality of section 2 of an act of the State of South Carolina, approved February 23, 1903 (24 Stat. 81), which reads:

"SEC. 2. That every claim for loss of or damage to property while in the possession of such common carrier shall be adjusted and paid within forty days, in case of shipments wholly within this State, and within ninety days, in case of shipments from without this State, after the filing of such claim with the agent of such carrier at the point of destination of such shipment: Provided, That no such claim shall be filed until after the arrival of the shipment or of some part thereof at the point of destination, or until after the lapse of a reasonable time for the arrival thereof. In every case such common carrier shall be liable for the amount of such loss or damage, together with interest thereon from the date of the filing of the claim therefor

[ 207 U.S. Page 76]

     until the payment thereof. Failure to adjust and pay such claim within the periods respectively herein prescribed shall subject each common carrier so failing to a penalty of fifty dollars for each and every such failure, to be recovered by any consignee or consignees aggrieved in any court of competent jurisdiction: Provided, That unless such consignee or consignees recover in such action the full amount claimed, no penalty shall be recovered, but only the actual amount of the loss or damage, with interest as aforesaid: Provided, further, That no common carrier shall be liable under this act for property which never came into its possession, if it complies with the provisions of section 1710, vol. 1, of the Code of Laws of South Carolina, 1902."

The difference between the value of the goods shipped and the freight charges, $1.75, and the amount of the penalty, $50, naturally excites attention. The Supreme Court of the State held the section constitutional, a decision conclusive so far as the state constitution is concerned, and therefore we are limited to a consideration of its alleged conflict with the Constitution of the United States. The shipment was wholly intrastate, being from Columbia, S.C., to McBee, S.C., and undoubtedly subject to the control of the State. It is of course unnecessary to consider the validity of the statute when applied to a shipment from without the State.

It is contended that the equal protection of the laws, guaranteed by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, is denied. The power of classification is conceded, but this will not uphold one that is purely arbitrary. There must be some substantial foundation and basis therefor. It is asserted that this is merely legislation to compel carriers to pay their debts within a given time, by an unreasonable penalty for any delay, while no one else is so punished, and that there is no excuse for such distinction. We have had before us several cases involving classification statutes, and while the principles upon which classifications may rightfully be made are clear and easily stated, yet the application of those principles to the different

[ 207 U.S. Page 77]

     cases is often attended with much difficulty. See among others, on the general principles of classification, Barbier v. Connolly, 113 U.S. 27; Bell's Gap Railroad Company v. Pennsylvania, 134 U.S. 232, and of cases making application of those principles; Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway Company v. Ellis, 165 U.S. 150; A.T. & S.F.R.R. Co. v. Matthews, 174 U.S. 96, and cases cited in the opinion; Erb v. Morasch, 177 U.S. 584; Fidelity Mutual Life Association v. Mettler, 185 U.S. 308; Farmers' &c. Ins. Co. v. Dobney, 189 U.S. 301; M.K. & T. Ry. Co. v. May, 194 U.S. 267.

We are of the opinion that this case comes within the limits of constitutionality. It is not an act imposing a penalty for the nonpayment of debts. As the Supreme Court of South Carolina said in Best v. Seaboard Air Line R.R. Co., 72 S. Car., 479, 484:

"The object of the statute was not to penalize the carrier for merely refusing to pay a claim within the time required, whether just or unjust, but the design was to bring about a reasonably prompt settlement of all proper claims, the penalty, in case of a recovery in court, operating as a deterrent of the carrier in refusing to settle just claims, and as compensation of the claimant for the trouble and expense of the suit which the carrier's unreasonable delay and refusal made necessary."

This ruling of the Supreme Court finds support, if any be needed, in the preamble of the statute, which reads: "An act to regulate the manner in which common carriers doing business in this State shall adjust ...


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