OLIVER V. ALEXANDER, 31 U. S. 143 (1832)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Oliver v. Alexander, 31 U.S. 6 Pet. 143 143 (1832)

Oliver v. Alexander

31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 143


On proceedings under libels in the district and circuit courts of the United States of the District of Maryland, claiming seamen's wages from the ship Warren and her freight, upon which, in the circuit court, a general decree pro forma against the libellants was entered for the purpose of an appeal to this Court, a decree was here made by which $32,872.30 were adjudged to be due to the libellants from the respondents as part of their wages, to be paid to them pro rata, and by the mandate of this Court, the circuit court was ordered to ascertain the sums due respectively to each of the libellants. This was done, and on the report of a commission fixing the several sums so due, a separate decree was entered in the circuit court for the sum so found due to each libellant respectively. None of the sums decreed to be due amounted to $1,000. The amount of the several sums adjudged to be due by the several separate decrees was $32,000 and upwards. From these separate decrees the respondents in the circuit court prayed an appeal to this Court, and gave a several appeal bond upon the appeal from each decree, as well as a joint appeal bond for the whole. The appeal was dismissed upon the ground that the sum in controversy in each case was less than $2,000.

This is a case of wages in which there is necessarily a several and distinct contract with each seaman for the voyage at his own rate of wages, and though he may sign the same shipping paper, no one is understood to contract jointly with or to incur responsibility for any other.

The shipping articles constitute a several contract with each seaman to all intents and purposes, and are so contemplated by the act of Congress for the government and regulation of seamen in the merchant service, and have been so practically interpreted in courts of justice, as well as by merchants and mariners in all commercial nations in modern times.

It is well known that every seaman has a right to sue severally for his own wages in the courts of common law, and that a joint action cannot be maintained in such courts by any number of seamen for wages accruing under the same shipping articles for the same voyage. The reason is that the common law will not tolerate a joint action except by persons who have a joint interest; if the cause of action is several, the suit must be several.

But a different course of practice has prevailed for ages in the court of admiralty in regard to suits for seamen's wages. It is a special favor, and a peculiar privilege allowed to the, and to them only, and is confined strictly to demands for wages.

Although the libel is in its form joint, the contract is always treated in the admiralty, according to the truth of the case, as a several distinct contract with each

Page 31 U. S. 144


Each is to stand or fall by the merits of his own claim, and is unaffected by that of his co-libellants.

The defense which is good against one seaman may be wholly inapplicable to another. One may have been paid, another may not have performed the service, and another may have forfeited in whole or in part his claim to wages. But no decree whatever which is made in regard to such claims can possibly avail to the prejudice of the merits of others which do not fall within the same predicament. And wherever from the nature of the defense it is inapplicable to the whole crew, the answer invariably contains separate averments and is applied to each claim according to its own peculiar circumstances.

The decree follows the same rule, and assigns to each seaman severally the amount to which he is entitled, and dismisses the libel as to those and those only who have maintained no right to the interposition of the court in their favor.

The whole proceeding, though it assumes the form of a joint suit, is in reality a mere joinder of distinct causes of action by distinct parties growing out of the same contract, and bears some analogy to the known practice at common law of consolidating actions founded on the same policy of insurance. The act of Congress adopts and sanctions the practice.

One seaman cannot appeal from a decree made in regard to the claim of another, for he has no interest in it and cannot be aggrieved by it.

It is very clear that no seaman can appeal from the district to the circuit court unless his own claim exceeds $50, nor from the circuit to the supreme court unless his claim exceeds $2,000. And the same rule applies to the owners or other respondents, who are not at liberty to consolidate the distinct demands of each seaman into an aggregate, thus making the claims of the whole the matter in dispute, but they can appeal only in regard to the demand of a seaman which exceeds the sum required by law for that purpose as a distinct matter in dispute.

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