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U.S. Supreme Court

Blamberg Bros. v. United States, 260 U.S. 452 (1923)

Blamberg Brothers v. United States

No. 165

Argued December 5, 1922

Decided January 2, 1923

260 U.S. 452




The second section of the Suits in Admiralty Act does not authorize a suit in personam against the United States as a substitute for a libel in rem when the United States vessel is not in a port of the United States or of one of her possessions. P. 260 U. S. 458.

272 F.9d 8 affirmed.

Page 260 U. S. 453

Appeal from a decree of the district court dismissing a libel in admiralty for want of jurisdiction.

Page 260 U. S. 456

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal from the district court of Maryland on a question of jurisdiction duly certified by the district judge.

The appellant, a corporation of Maryland, February 26, 1921, filed a libel in personam against the United States under the suits in Admiralty Act, approved March 9, 1920, c. 95, 41 Stat. 525. The libel alleged that, on October 6, 1920, the libelant had shipped 1,500 bags of corn from Baltimore to Havana, Cuba, to its own order, upon the barge Cataskill, that the corn had never been delivered in accordance with the terms of the bills of lading, and that, due to the delay, the corn had greatly deteriorated in value, whereby libelant had been damaged in the sum of $15,000. The libel contained this averment:

"Third, That said barge Cataskill is now, or will be, during the pendency of process hereunder, within this district and within the jurisdiction of this honorable court."

The United States made answer April 22, 1921, through the district attorney. It admitted that it was the qualified owner of the Cataskill, but denied that it was, or had ever been, in charge of the operation of the barge. It alleged that it entered into a contract for the sale of the barge July 26, 1920, for $60,000, $6,000 in cash and the balance in monthly installments of $3,000, that the vendee had defaulted in all the monthly payments, that the

Page 260 U. S. 457

barge was delivered to the vendee June 30, 1920, and the United States had no control over her management or operation, and did not make the contract of affreightment described in the libel. In answer to the third paragraph of the libel, the respondent alleged that it was advised that the barge was in Havana, and had no knowledge when it would arrive in the jurisdiction of the court. On May 3, 1921, having obtained leave of court, the United States, as respondent, filed a suggestion of want of jurisdiction in which it averred positively that the barge was then in the port of Havana, Cuba, where it had been libeled in the sum of $3,725 for wage claims. It further averred that libels in personam had been filed against it in three other district courts of the United States for claims aggregating a sum in excess of the value of the barge, which was alleged not to exceed $50,000. The suggestion concludes that the respondent cannot be proceeded against by a libel in personam, or by a libel in the nature of an in rem proceeding as provided for by the Suits in Admiralty Act, for the reason that, at the time of filing the libel, and at all times thereafter, the barge Cataskill was and had been at the port of Havana, Cuba, and without the jurisdiction of the court. The libelant answering the suggestion alleged that, although, under the facts as alleged, no direct personal liability arose against the respondent under the general law, yet, under the Suits in Admiralty Act, a right to bring a libel in personam was created as a substitute for an ordinary libel in rem, and that the presence of the barge in the jurisdiction of the court was not essential to such jurisdiction in personam.

The first section of the Suits in Admiralty Act provides that no vessel or cargo owned by the United States

"shall hereafter, in view of the provision herein made for a libel in personam, be subject to arrest or seizure by judicial process in the United States or its possessions. "

Page 260 U. S. 458

The second section provides that, in cases where, if such vessel were privately owned, a proceeding in admiralty could be maintained, a libel in personam may be brought against the United States, provided the vessel is employed as a merchant vessel or a tugboat. The suits are to be brought in the United States district court where the libelants live or have their principal place of business in the United States, or in which the vessel or cargo charged with liability may be found. Provision is made for manner of service and upon application of either party for the transfer of such libels to any other district in the discretion of the court.

By the seventh section of the act, if any vessel or cargo of the United States is seized by process of a court of any country other than the United States, the Secretary of State of the United States in his discretion, upon request of the Attorney General, may direct the United States consul residing near the part of seizure to claim immunity from such suit and seizure or to execute a bond on behalf of the United States as the court may require for the release of the vessel or cargo.

The district court, on the facts stated, held that it was without jurisdiction under this statute to entertain a libel in personam against the United States. We agree with that holding. The first section of the act is limited in its inhibition of seizures of vessels and cargoes of the United States to ports of the United States and its possessions. The second section is in pari materia, and the same limitation must be implied in its construction. This act was passed to avoid the embarrassment to which the government found itself subjected by the Act of September 7, 1916, 39 Stat. 728, by the ninth section of which vessels in which the United States had an interest and which were employed as merchant vessels were made liable as such to arrest or seizure for enforcement of maritime liens. The Lake Monroe, 250 U.S.

Page 260 U. S. 459

246. It was intended to substitute this proceeding in personam, as the first section of the act expressly indicates, in lieu of the previous unlimited right of claimants to libel such vessels in rem in the ports of the United States and its possessions. Congress had no power, however, to enact immunity from seizure in respect of such vessels when in foreign ports, and therefore the embarrassment of seizures was to be mitigated in another way -- i.e., by claiming immunity on international grounds and, if that failed, by stipulation or bound in the name of the United States. The provisions of the seventh section confirm the construction by which provisions of the second section are limited in their application to vessels within the jurisdiction of the United States.

A number of important questions as to the construction of this statute have arisen in other cases, and the argument before us has taken a wide range. Those questions do not require decision here, and we do not decide them. All we hold here is that the district court was right in construing the second section of the Suits in Admiralty Act not to authorize a suit in personam against the United States as a substitute for a libel in rem when the United States vessel is not in a port of the United States or of one of her possessions.


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