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Colonial Cases

American Trading Co. v. Butterfield and Swire, 1891


American Trading Co. v. Butterfield and Swire

Supreme Court for China and Japan
Rennie CJ, 18 February 1891
Source: North China Herald, 20 February, 1891

Shanghai, 18th February.
Before Sir R. T. Rennie, Chief Justice.
  This was an action to recover Tls. 222.04 for damage done to four casks of chlorate of potash shipped by the Prometheus from Liverpool to Shanghai. The action as what is known as a "friendly" one, the parties appearing in person, Mr. James Jones for the plaintiffs and Mr. J. C. Bois for the defendants.  The case was heard in his Lordship's private room.
  The facts, which were not in dispute, were as follows: On top of the four casks of chlorate of potash the stevedore at Liverpool had stowed a cask of soda crystals. There were marks on the outside of these casks, showing their contents. On the arrival of the ship at Shanghai it was found that the soda crystals had melted and that the liquid had percolated into the chlorate of potash, rendering it practically valueless. The plaintiffs contended that the damage was due to improper storage, and that the cask of soda crystals ought to have been placed on the floor of the hold instead of on top of other cargo.
  Mr. Bois argued that the stevedore was not bound to know what would arise from stowing the chemicals together, the soda crystals and the chlorate of potash being dry when received on board the stevedore was quite justified in stowing the two kinds of dry cargo together. He contended that if there was any wrong in stowing the articles together, that wrong was initiated by the shippers, who put all the casks on the same bill of lading, in consequence of which they were naturally stowed together for convenience of delivery.
  Mr. Jones replied that the casks were sent from different manufacturers in England to Liverpool, and were all entered on the bill of lading for the convenience of the steamship owners. At a port like Liverpool, where stevedores were constantly engaged in stowing chemicals, it was not at all likely that the soda crystals would knowingly have been placed on top of the chlorate of potash. He suggested that the soda crystals had been inadvertently mistaken for chlorate of potash.
   His Lordship quoted a case, decided in 1887, in which a shipowner had been held liable for damage caused by the leakage of oil onto some palm baskets, both oil and palm baskets being the property of the same shipper.
  Mr. Bois said that in that case the goods had been improperly stowed, wet cargo having been placed where it would be liable to injure dry cargo.
  Frederick Mann, called as an expert witness by plaintiffs, deposed - I have had considerable experience of shipping chlorate of potash. It is a general rule that it must be stowed where no other cargo can come into contact with it. Soda crystals are very liable to absorb moisture, especially in a warm atmosphere.  In fact, soda crystals always leak. Witness added that any two kinds of dry cargo could not be placed together. Chlorate of potash and sulphide of antimony, for instance, if packed together would blow up the ship.
  His Lordship said he had not much doubt about the matter, but he would look into the authorities and write a judgment.

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Source: North China Herald, 27 February, 1891

[As above]
  His Lordship gave judgment as follows  
  In this case the plaintiffs, being shippers of chlorate of potash on board one of the defendants' steamers, claim damages for injury to a portion of it caused by leakage of a cask of soda crystals which was stowed on top of it. The potash and crystals were sent on board the defendants' steamer at Liverpool, by, or by the order of, the plaintiffs, and covered by one bill of lading. The stowage was done by the defendants' stevedore, who, it is admitted, was, or ought to have been, aware of the contents of the respective packages.  In the course of the voyage the soda crystals deliquesced, and the leakage resulting therefrom caused damage to the potash now sued for.
  The only question that I have to decide is whether or not the stevedore "had the means of knowing or reasonably might or could or ought to have known" that soda crystals were liable to leak on a voyage to China. If he did know or ought to have known or ascertained this fact he should not have stowed the cask as he did, and it is said that had he put the cask of crystals beside the packages of potash no harm would have resulted. The only witness examined at the hearing, Mr. Mann, a gentlemen seemingly well acquainted with the articles in question, says that soda crystals always leak on a voyage out to China; and if that be the fact, as I must assume it is, it seems to me perfectly clear that the stevedore should either have been aware of it or taken means to ascertain it; and I do not think it was obligatory on the plaintiffs, under the circumstances, to give any special warning to the defendants or make any special request  to them as to the stowage of the two classes of goods shipped by their order. As the amount of damage has been practically agreed upon between the parties, I need only give judgment for the plaintiffs generally, with costs.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School