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U.S. Supreme Court

Transportation Company v. Downer, 78 U.S. 11 Wall. 129 129 (1870)

Transportation Company v. Downer

78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 129


1. The terms "dangers of lake navigation" include all the ordinary perils which attend navigation on the lakes, and among others, that which arises from shallowness of the waters at the entrance of harbors formed from them.

2. When a defendant -- a transportation company -- shows that a loss of goods, which it had contracted to carry from one port to another, was occasioned by a danger of lake navigation, from losses by which it had exempted itself by its bill of lading, the plaintiff may show that the danger and consequent loss might have been avoided by the exercise of proper care and skill on the part of the defendant, in which case the defendant will be liable notwithstanding the exemption in the bill of lading. The burden of establishing the absence of such care and skill on the part of the defendant rests with the plaintiff.

Page 78 U. S. 130

3. A presumption of negligence from the simple occurrence of an accident seldom arises, except where the accident proceeds from an act of such a character that when due care is taken in its performance, no injury ordinarily ensues from it in similar cases, or where it is caused by the mismanagement or misconstruction of a thing over which the defendant has immediate control and for the management or construction of which he is responsible.

This case was an action against the Western Transportation Company to recover damages sustained by the plaintiff from the loss of eighty-four bags of coffee belonging to him which the company had undertaken to transport from New York to Chicago. The company was a common carrier, and in the course of the transportation had shipped the coffee on board of the propeller Buffalo, one of its steamers on the lakes. The testimony showed that the steamer was seaworthy and properly equipped, and was under the command of a competent and experienced master, but on entering the harbor of Chicago in the evening, she touched the bottom, and not answering her helm, got aground, and during the night which followed kept pounding, and thus caused the hold to fill with water. The result was that the coffee on board was so damaged as to be worthless.

The bill of lading given to the plaintiff by the transportation company at New York exempted the company from liability for losses on goods insured and losses occasioned by the "dangers of navigation on the lakes and rivers." The defense made in the case was that the loss of the coffee came within this last exception.

Upon the trial, the plaintiff having shown that the defendant had the coffee for transportation and that the same was lost, the defendant then showed by competent evidence that the loss was occasioned in the manner above stated -- that is, by one of the "dangers of lake navigation." The plaintiff then endeavored to prove that this danger and the consequent loss might have been avoided by the exercise of proper care and skill. The defendant moved the court to instruct the jury as follows:

Page 78 U. S. 131

"If the jury believe from the evidence that the loss of the coffee in controversy was within one of the exceptions contained in the bill of lading offered in evidence -- that is to say if it was occasioned by perils of navigation of the lakes and rivers -- then the burden of showing that this loss might have been avoided by the exercise of proper care and skill is upon the plaintiff; then it is for him to show that the loss was the result of negligence."

The court refused to give this instruction and the defendant excepted, and at the request of the plaintiff, gave instead the following, to the giving of which the defendant also excepted, viz.:

"The bill of lading in this case excepts the defendant from liability, when the property is not insured, from perils of navigation. It is incumbent on the defendant to bring itself within the exception, and it is the duty of the defendant to show that it has not been guilty of negligence."

The plaintiff recovered, and the defendant brought the case here on writ of error.

Page 78 U. S. 133

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