Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

should bring all the parties interested into one litigation, and all the claimants into concourse for a pro rata distribution of the common fund, it is manifest that in most cases the benefits of the act could never be realized. Cases might occur, it is true, in which the shipowners could avail themselves of those benefits, by way of defense alone, as where both ship and freight are totally lost, so that the owners are relieved from all liability whatever. But even in that case, in the absence of a remedy by which they could obtain a decree of exemption as to all claimants, they would be liable to a diversity of suits brought, perhaps, in different states, after long periods of time, when the witnesses have been dispersed, and issuing in contrary results before different tribunals; while in the ordinary cases, where a limited liability to some extent exists, but to an amount less than the aggregate claims for damages, so as to require a concourse of claimants and a pro rata distribution, the prosecution of separate suits, if allowed to proceed, would result in a subversion of the whole object and scheme of the statute. The questions to be settled by the statutory proceedings being—First, whether the ship or its own. ers are liable at all, (if that point is contested and has not been decided ;) and, secondly, if liable, whether the owners are entitled to a limitation of liability,—must necessarily be decided by the district court having jurisdiction of the case; and to render its decision conclusive, it must have entire control of the subject to the exclusion of other courts and jurisdictions. If another court may investigate the same questions at the same time, it may come to a conclusion contrary to that of the district court; and if it does, (as happened in this case,) the proceedings in the district court will be thwarted and rendered ineffective to secure to the ship-owners the benefit of the statute.

The case is very different from that of two concurrent actions for a debt or other demand proceeding at the same time in different courts; though even that, in the English law, was matter for plea in abatement in the action last instituted. Still, as both actions in such case are prosecuted for the same end, the satisfaction of the debt, and as only one satisfaction can be had, no essential conflict arises between the two. But the very object of proceedings for limited liabil. ity is to inquire and determine whether the parties ought to be sued at all in any other tribunal after giving up, or submitting to pay

the value of, all their interest in the ship and freight. Besides, it is obvious on the face of the thing that proceedings for limited liability can. not be participated in by two jurisdictions without interference and conflict between them, and cannot have any useful effect if a different court may inquire into and decide the same question, and execute a separate judgment independent of and perhaps contrary to that of the court to which the inquiry properly belongs. Such a state of things would utterly defeat the purpose of the law. The judgment in one court would annul or render nugatory that of the other.

The inconveniences that may arise from preventing or arresting the prosecution of separate suits by the claimants are no greater in this case than in the case where proceedings at law are arrested for the purpose of having an investigation in a court of equity, or where distinct and separate suits are restrained for the purpose of settling a common controversy in a single proceeding, as in the case of bills for preventing a multiplicity of suits, and in cases of bankruptcy. By the bankrupt act of 1867 it was enacted that no creditor whose debt was provable under the act should be allowed to prosecute to final judgment any suit at law or in equity therefor against the bankrupt, until the question of the debtor's discharge should have been determined ; although, if the amount due the creditor was in dispute, the suit, by leave of the court in bankruptcy, might proceed to judgment for the purpose of ascertaining the amount, but execution should be stayed. See Hill v. Harding, 107 U. S. 631; [2 Sup. Cr. REP. 404.] None of the cases here referred to more imperatively require a cessation of proceedings in other suits for the same cause than that of the proceeding for a limitation of liability under the statute in question. Nor is the inconvenience any greater than that which occurs when a case is removed from the state to a federal court. In that case, on the presentation of a petition for removal, duly verified and showing the proper grounds for removal, and accompanied with the bond required by the statute on that subject, the law declares "it shall then be the duty of the state court to accept said petition and bond, and proceed no further in such suit.” In the case before us, as well as in the cases of bankruptcy and of removal, the parties have a right to have their causes heard and determined by a court of the United States invested with appropriate jurisdiction, and capable of affording a proper mode of relief.

In England, where the forms and modes of proceeding in the courts of admiralty are (or formerly were) greatly hampered and restricted, ship-owners seeking a decree of limited liability under the law of that country were forced to resort to the court of chancery for redress, and to call before that court the various parties interested. Here they were subjected to some onerous conditions before the court would exercise jurisdiction in their behalf, one of which was that they must confess liability for the damages which they sought to have limited in accordance with the act of parliament. But when this was done, and the amount of the confessed liability was paid into court, they were entitled to an injunction against all other suits and proceedings, wherever instituted or pending; and the cause then proceeded in due course, by reference to a master to take the proof of claims and make a report of the facts, and by a final decree of distri. bution. Under recent English statutes, the high court of admiralty, as well as the court of chancery, is empowered to administer the law, when it has possession of the ship or its proceeds. In the eleventh edition of Abb. Shipp., published in 1867, it is stated as follows:

869.

"In cases where several claims are made or apportioned against an owner for loss of life, personal injury, or loss or damage to ships, boats, or goods, the court of chancery and the high court of admiralty, whenever any ship or proceeds thereof are under its arrest, in England and Ireland, and the court of session in Scotland, and any competent court in a British possession, are empowered to entertain proceedings at the suit of such owner for the purpose of determining the amount of his liability, and for the distribution ratably of such amount, and to stop all actions and suits pending in any other court in relation to the same subject-matter.” 1

It is believed that in all other countries except England the courts of admirality, or tribunals of commerce having cognizance of mari. time causes, exclusively exercise this jurisdiction; and no other courts can really exercise it so conveniently and satisfactorily as those courts can. And the general course of proceeding, in whatever courts it is exercised, shows the necessity, everywhere acknowledged, that the court exercising the jurisdiction in any case should have exclusive control of the case. In view of these considerations, and having no doubt of the jurisdiction of the district court over the matter, as courts of admiralty, in the rules adopted in December term, 1871, the district court of the district in which the vessel is libeled or found, or in which the owners are sued, was designated as the proper court in which to institute the proceedings for obtaining a decree of limited liability. When cases arise in which the vessel and freight have been totally lost, and no district court has, or can have, possession of any fund to distribute, resort may probably be had with propriety to the district court of the district in which the owners reside, or where the vessel perished. It will be time enough, however, to consider what is proper in such exceptional cases when they arise. In Ex parte Slayton, 105 U. S. 451, we beld that jurisdiction accrued to the district court of the district comprising the port to which the vessel was bound, although she had been sunk in the lake and only a few fragments were washed ashore, the proceeds of which, however, amounting to a trifling sum, were deposited in the court. On this branch of the subject the following remarks were made in the opinion pronounced in the case of Norwich Transp. Co. v. Wright, supra:

“The act does not state what court shall be resorted to, nor what proceedings shall be taken; but that the parties, or any of them, may take the appropriate proceedings in any court, for the purpose of apportioning the sum for which,' etc. Now, no court is better adapted than a court of admiralty to administer precisely such relief. It happens every day that the proceeds of a vessel, or other fund, is brought into that court to be distributed among those whom it may concern. Claimants are called in by monition to present and substantiate their respective claims; and the fund is divided and distributed according to the respective liens and rights of all the parties. Congress might have invested the circuit courts of the United States with jurisdiction of such cases by bill in equity, but it did not. It is also evident that the state courts have not the requisite jurisdiction. Unless, therefore, the district courts themselves can administer the law, we are reduced to the di

1 Referring to 24 Vict. e. 10, 13. For the previous practice, see Tho Saracen, 2 W. Rob. 451; 8. C. on appeal, 11 Jor. 253; 6 Moore, P. C. 56; The Clara, Swab.6.

lemma of inferring that the legislature has framed a law which is incapable of execution. This is never to be done if it can be avoided. We have no doubt that the district courts, as courts of admiralty and maritime jurisdic: tion, have jurisdiction of the matter; and this court undoubtedly has the power to make all needful rules and regulations for facilitating the course of proveeding." 13 Wall. 123.

We see no reason to modify these views, and, in our judgment, the proper district court, designated by the rules, or otherwise indicated by circumstances, has full jurisdiction and plenary power, as a court of admiralty, to entertain and carry on all proper proceedings for the due execution of the law, in all its parts; and its decrees, in cases subject to its jurisdiction, are valid and binding in all courts and places. In the present case, the proper court undoubtedly was the district court of the United States for the southern district of New York, where the remains of the vessel were situated, and where suits were brought against the owners. Proceedings under the act having been duly instituted in this court, it acquired full jurisdiction of the subject matter; and having taken such jurisdiction, and procured control of the vessel and freight, (or their value,) constituting the fund to be distributed, and issued its monition to all parties to appear and present their claims, it became the duty of all courts before which any of such claims were prosecuted, upon being properly certified of the proceedings, to suspend further action upon said claims. But the power of the district courts to issue an injunction to stay proceedings in a state court is questioned, since, by the judiciary act of 1793 (1 St. at Large, 335,) it was declared that no writ of injunction shall be granted [by the United States courts] “to stay proceedings in any court of a state." But the act of 1851 was a subsequeut statute, and, by the fourth section of this act, after providing for proceedings to be had under it for the benefit of ship-owners, and after declaring that it shall be deemed a sufficient compliance with its requirements on their part if they shall transfer their interest in ship and freight for *the benefit of the claimants to a trustee to be appointed by the court, it is expressly declared, that "from and after (such] transfer, all claims and proceedings against the owners shall cease.” Surely, this injunction applies as well to “claims and proceedings” in state courts as to those in the federal courts; and while the district court having jurisdiction of the case, for the purpose of enforcing the act of con. gress and the rules adopted by this court in pursuance thereof, can only direct an injunction against the parties, and not against the courts in which such"claims and proceedings" are prosecuted, yet any further proceedings on the part of said courts, after being judi. cially informed by plea or suggestion duly made in the cause of the action and proceedings in the district court, would be against the express words of the act, and clearly erroneous. The operation of the act, in this behalf, cannot be regarded as confined to cases of actual

“transfer," (which is merely allowed as a sufficient compliance with the law,) but must be regarded, when we consider its reason and equity and the whole scope of its provisions, as extending to cases in which what is required and done is tantamount to such transfer; as where the value of the owners' interest is paid into court, or secured by stipulation, and placed under its control for the benefit of the parties interested.

This view of the statutory injunction, and of its effect upon separate actions and proceedings, renders it unnecessary to determine the question as to the legality of the writ of injunction issued by the district court. Although we have little doubt of its legality, the question can only be properly raised on an application for an attachment for disobeying it. As the writ was issued prior to the adoption of the Revised Statutes, the power to issue it was not affected by any supposed change of the law introduced into the Revision by the 720th section, of which the prohibition of the act of 1793, in regard to injunctions against proceedings in state courts, has this exception appended to it: “Except in cases where such injunction may be author. ized by any law relating to proceedings in bankruptcy.” Under the rule of expressio unius, this express exception may be urged as having the effect of excluding any other exception, though it is obseryable that the injunction clause in the act of 1851 is preserved with. out change in section 4285 of the Revised Statutes, and will probably be construed as having its original effect due to its chronological relation to the act of 1793. But, as before indicated, the legality of the writ of injunction is not involved in this case. In our opinion the state court, in overruling the plea of the defendants, which set up the proceedings pending in the district court, and in ordering the eeuse to stand for trial, and again, on the trial, in overruling as a defense the proceedings and decree of the district court as set up in the amended answer, disregarded the due effect, as well as the express provisions, of the act of 1851, and therein committed error. It was the duty of the court, as well when the proceedings pending in the district court were pleaded and verified by profert of the record as when the decree of said court was pleaded and proved, to have obeyed the injunction of the act of congress, which declared that "all claims and proceedings shall cease.” When the plea only showed that proceedings for limited liability were pending and undetermined in the district court, probably a stay of proceedings was all that tne defendants could require; but when they set up and produced the final decree of that court, forever debarring the plaintiffs from prosecuting any claim for damages, they were entitled either to a verdict and judgment in their favor or to a dismissal of the proceedings.

We have assumed in the foregoing discussion that the case of loss and damage by fire on board of a ship is within the provisions of the third

« ZurückWeiter »