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decided: December 3, 1934.



Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Stone

[ 293 U.S. Page 301]

 MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners brought suit in admiralty in the district court for Southern New York, to recover damages for injury to a shipment of onions on respondent's S. S. "Vallescura" from Spain to New York City. The onions, receipt of which in apparent good condition was acknowledged by the bill of lading, were delivered in New York damaged by decay. The vessel pleaded as a defense an exception, in the bill of lading, from liability for damage by "decay" and "perils of the seas," and that the damage "was not due to any cause or event arising through any negligence on the part of the vessel, her master, owner or agents."

On the trial there was evidence that the decay was caused by improper ventilation of the cargo during the voyage, and that the failure to ventilate was due in part to closing of the hatches and ventilators made necessary by heavy weather, and in part to the neglect of the master and crew in failing to keep them open at night in fair weather. The district court entered an interlocutory decree, adjudging that the libellants recover the amount of the damage sustained by them, caused by closing the hatches and ventilators during good weather, and appointing a special commissioner to ascertain and compute the amount of damage.

The commissioner, after hearing evidence, found that it was impossible to ascertain how much of the damage was due to want of ventilation in fair weather and how much to want of it in bad. But, after comparing the periods during which the ventilators were negligently closed with those during which they were open or properly closed,*fn1 he stated: "It would seem, therefore, that the

[ 293 U.S. Page 302]

     greater part of the damage must have been due to improper shutting of the hatches and ventilators." He concluded that as the vessel had failed to show what part of the damage was due to bad weather, the petitioner should recover the full amount of the damage. The district court, accepting the report of the commissioner as presumably correct, as required by Admiralty Rule No. 43 1/2, 286 U.S. 572, found no basis for rejecting its conclusions and gave judgment to libellants accordingly. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, 70 F.2d 261, holding that as the damage was within the clause of the bill of lading exempting the vessel from liability for decay, the burden was on petitioner to show what part of the damage was taken out of the exception, because due to respondent's negligence.

Although certiorari was granted to review this ruling of the court below, most of respondent's argument before us was given over to the contention that the record discloses no finding, by either court below, that any part of the damage was caused by respondent's negligence. The decision of the District Court was made before the promulgation of Rule 46 1/2 in Admiralty, 281 U.S. 773, requiring the trial court to make special findings of fact. No formal findings were made, but in directing entry of the interlocutory decree, and after reviewing the evidence and commenting on the fact that the hatches and ventilators had been kept closed at night in fair weather, a circumstance which the trial judge declared established negligence in the care and custody of the cargo, he stated: "Thus it appears that this notoriously perishable cargo of Spanish Onions (The Buckleigh, 1929 A. M. C. 449, 450) was deprived of all ventilation during the nighttime, regardless of the state of the weather. Such treatment was obviously ruinous and must have caused substantial damage." We have no doubt that this was intended to

[ 293 U.S. Page 303]

     be a finding that negligence in failing to provide proper ventilation was the cause of some of the damage and that, as such, it was adequately supported by evidence. The commissioner and the court below assumed it to be such and we so accept it.

The failure to ventilate the cargo was not a "fault or error in navigation or management" of the vessel, from the consequences of which it may be relieved by § 3 of the Harter Act of February 13, 1893, § 3, c. 105, 27 Stat. 445; § 192, Tit. 46, U. S. C. The management was of the cargo, within the meaning of §§ 1 and 2 of the Act, and not of the vessel, to which § 3 relates. The Germanic, 196 U.S. 589, 597; Knott v. Botany Mills, 179 U.S. 69, 73, 74; The Jean Bart, 197 Fed. 1002, 1006 (D.C.). Hence, we pass to the decisive question whether, in view of the presumptions which aid the shipper in establishing the vessel's liability under a contract for carriage by sea, it was necessary for the petitioners to offer further evidence in order to recover the damage which they have suffered. If, in the state of the proof which the record exhibits, recovery depends upon their ability to produce evidence which would enable the court to separate the amount of damage attributable to respondent's negligence from that attributable to the unavoidable failure to ventilate in bad weather, they have failed to do so and judgment must go against them. But if respondent can relieve itself from liability only by showing what part of the damage was due to sea peril, in that bad weather prevented ventilation, judgment must go against it for the full damages.

In general the burden rests upon the carrier of goods by sea to bring himself within any exception relieving him from the liability which the law otherwise imposes on him. This is true at common law with respect to the ...

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