Post v. Jones

60 U.S. 150 (1856)


Mr. Justice Grier delivered the opinion of the court.


The libellants, owners of the ship Richmond and cargo, filed the libel in this case for an adjustment of salvage.


They allege, that the ship Richmond left the port of Cold Spring, Long Island, on a whaling voyage to the North and South Pacific Ocean, in July, 1846; that on the 2d of August, 1849, in successful prosecution of her voyage, and having nearly a full cargo, she was run upon some rocks on the coast of Behring's Straits, about a half mile from shore; that while so disabled, the whaling ships Elizabeth Frith and the Panama, being in the same neighborhood, and about to return home, but not having full cargoes, each took on board some seven or eight hundred barrels of oil and a large quantity of whalebone from the Richmond; that these vessels have arrived in the port of Sag Harbor, and their owners are proceeding to sell said oil, etc., without adjusting or demanding salvage, unjustly setting up a pretended sale of the Richmond and her cargo to them by her master.


The libellants pray to have possession delivered to them of the oil, &c., or its proceeds, if sold, subject to "salvage and freight."


The claimants, who are owners of the ships Frith and Panama, allege, in their answer, that the Richmond was wholly and irrevocably wrecked; that her officers and crew had abandoned her, and gone on a barren and uninhabited shore near by; that there were no inhabitants or persons on that part of the globe, from whom any relief could be obtained, or who would accept her cargo, or take charge thereof, for a salvage compensation; that the cargo of the Richmond, though valuable in a good market, was of little or no value where she lay; that the season during which it was practicable to remain was nigh its close; that the entire destruction of both vessel and cargo was inevitable, and the loss of the lives of the crew almost certain; that, under these circumstances, the master of the Richmond concluded to sell the vessel at auction, and so much of her cargo as was desired by the persons present, which was done on the following day, with the assent of the whole ship's company.


Respondents aver that this sale was a fair, honest, and valid sale of the property, made from necessity, in good faith, and for the best interests of all concerned, and that they are the rightful and bona fide owners of the portions of the cargo respectively purchased by them.

If the sale is enforceable, the owners of the rescuing ships own the Richmond’s whale oil.  If the sale is not enforceable, the oil belongs to the owner of the Richmond, who owes a salvage fee to the rescuing ships.  The salvage fee would be much less than the value of the oil.


The District Court decreed in favor of claimants; on appeal to the Circuit Court, this decree was reversed; the sale was pronounced void, and the respondents treated as salvors only, and permitted to retain a moiety of the proceeds of the property as salvage.


The claimants have appealed to this court, and the questions proposed for our consideration are, 1st, whether, under the peculiar circumstances of this case, the sale should be treated as conferring a valid title; and, if not, 2d, whether the salvage allowed was sufficient.


1.  [Discussion of the first question.]


. . .


As many of the circumstances attending this case are peculiar and novel, it may not be improper to give a brief statement of them. The Richmond, after a ramble of three years on the Pacific, in pursuit of whales, had passed through the sea of Anadin, and was near Behring's Straits, in the Arctic ocean, on the 2d of August, 1849. She had nearly completed her cargo, and was about to return; but, during a thick fog, she was run upon rocks, within half a mile of the shore, and in a situation from which it was impossible to extricate her. The master and crew escaped in their boats to the shore, holding communication with the vessel, without much difficulty or danger. They could probably have transported the cargo to the beach, but this would have been unprofitable labor, as its condition would not have been improved. Though saved from the ocean, it would not have been safe. The coast was barren; the few inhabitants, savages and thieves. This ocean is navigable for only about two months in the year; during the remainder of the year it is sealed up with ice. The winter was expected to commence within fifteen or twenty days, at farthest. The nearest port of safety and general commercial intercourse was at the Sandwich Islands, five thousand miles distant. Their only hope of escape from this inhospitable region was by means of other whaling vessels, which were known to be cruising at no great distance, and who had been in company with the Richmond, and had pursued the same course.


On the 5th of August the fog cleared off, and the ship Elizabeth Frith was seen at a short distance. The officers of the Richmond immediately went on board, and the master informed the master of the Frith of the disaster which had befallen the Richmond. He requested him to take his crew on board, and said, "You need not whale any more; there is plenty of oil there, which you may take, and get away as soon as possible." On the following day they took on board the Frith about 300 barrels oil from the Richmond. On the 6th, the Panama and the Junior came near; they had not quite completed their cargoes; as there was more oil in the Richmond than they could all take, it was proposed that they also should complete their cargoes in the same way. Captain Tinkham, of the Junior, proposed to take part of the crew of the Richmond, and said he would take part of the oil, “provided it was put up and sold at auction.”

Evidently, Tinkham, was unwilling to transport the oil back to port unless the captain of the captain of the Richmond sold it to him.  Thus, the captain of the Richmond was confronted with this choice:  agree to the sale, or lose the oil to the sea in exchange for nothing at all.


In pursuance of this suggestion, advertisements were posted on each of the three vessels, signed by or for the master of the Richmond. On the following day the forms of an auction sale were enacted; the master of the Frith bidding one dollar per barrel for as much as he needed, and the others seventy-five cents. The ship and tackle were sold for five dollars; no money was paid, and no account kept or bill of sale made out. Each vessel took enough to complete her cargo of oil and bone. The transfer was effected in a couple of days, with some trouble and labor, but little or no risk or danger, and the vessels immediately proceeded on their voyage, stopping as usual at the Sandwich Islands.


Now, it is evident, from this statement of the facts, that, although the Richmond was stranded near the shore upon which her crew and even her cargo might have been saved from the dangers of the sea, they were really in no better situation as to ultimate safety than if foundered or disabled in the midst of the Pacific ocean. The crew were glad to escape with their lives. The ship and cargo, though not actually derelict, must necessarily have been abandoned. The contrivance of an auction sale, under such circumstances, where the master of the Richmond was hopeless, helpless, and passive—where there was no market, no money, no competition—where one party had absolute power, and the other no choice but submission—where the vendor must take what is offered or get nothing—is a transaction which has no characteristic of a valid contract.

The court regards the captain of the Richmond as having been coerced to enter the sale by the Tinkham’s threat not to transport the oil to port unless it was sold to him.


(a) True


(b) False


It has been contended by the claimants that it would be a great hardship to treat this sale as a nullity, and thus compel them to assume the character of salvors, because they were not bound to save this property, especially at so great a distance from any port of safety, and in a place where they could have completed their cargo in a short time from their own catchings, and where salvage would be no compensation for the loss of this opportunity. The force of these arguments is fully appreciated, but we think they are not fully sustained by the facts of the case. Whales may have been plenty around their vessels on the 6th and 7th of August, but, judging of the future from the past, the anticipation of filling up their cargo in the few days of the season in which it would be safe to remain, was very uncertain, and barely probable. The whales were retreating towards the north pole, where they could not be pursued, and, though seen in numbers on one day, they would disappear on the next; and, even when seen in greatest numbers, their capture was uncertain. By this transaction, the vessels were enabled to proceed at once on their home voyage; and the certainty of a liberal salvage allowance for the property rescued will be ample compensation for the possible chance of greater profits, by refusing their assistance in saving their neighbor's property.


It has been contended, also, that the sale was justifiable and valid, because it was better for the interests of all concerned to accept what was offered, than suffer a total loss. But this argument proves too much, as it would justify every sale to a salvor. Courts of admiralty will enforce contracts made for salvage service and salvage compensation, where the salvor has not taken advantage of his power to make an unreasonable bargain; but they will not tolerate the doctrine that a salvor can take the advantage of his situation, and avail himself of the calamities of others to drive a bargain; nor will they permit the performance of a public duty to be turned into a traffic of profit. . . . The general interests of commerce will be much better promoted by requiring the salvor to trust for compensation to the liberal recompense usually awarded by courts for such services are of opinion, therefore, that the claimants have not obtained a valid title to the property in dispute, but must be treated as salvors.


2.  As to the amount of salvage.


[Having decided the sale was invalid, the court considers the principles by which the amount due as salvage should be determined.]

. . .


[I]t is now here ordered and decreed by this court, that the decree of the said Circuit Court in this cause be and the same is hereby reversed, and that this cause be and the same is hereby remanded to the said Circuit Court, with directions to have the amount due to each party adjusted, according to the principles stated in the opinion of this court, and that all the costs of said cause in this court, and in the Circuit and District Courts, be paid out of the fund in the said Circuit Court.

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