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Post v. Jones - 60 U.S. (19 How.) 150 (1857)

Rule:

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.

Facts:

Appellants-libellants Post and others, who were the owners of the ship Richmond and its cargo, filed a libel action against respondents-claimants, who were the owners of the ships Frith and Panama, for an adjustment of salvage. The appellants' ship Richmond had left on a whaling voyage when it became disabled after running upon rocks on the coast of the Behring Straits. Jones et al. had boats nearby that were able to salvage the cargo of fuel oil, which they proceeded to sell. Libellant owners sought to have claimants Jones et al. pay them the proceeds. The claimants alleged that the Richmond was wholly and irrevocably wrecked; that her officers and crew had abandoned her, and gone on a barren and uninhabited shore. The claimants further alleged that the cargo 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. The district court decreed in favor of the claimants  and dismissed the libel. On appeal, the circuit court reversed the decree and pronounced the sale void, and treated the respondents as salvors only. The libellants sought further review.

Issue:

In an admiralty case where the claimant ship owners salvaged barrels of oil after libellant ship owners' ship became wrecked, should the eventual sale of the cargo by the claimants be treated as conferring a valid title?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States sought to determine: 1st, whether, under the peculiar circumstances of this case, the sale should be treated as conferring a valid title; and, if not, 2nd, whether the salvage allowed was sufficient.

As for the first question, the Court answered in the negative. 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 respondents-claimants Jones et al. have not obtained a valid title to the property in dispute, but must be treated instead as salvors.

As for the second question, the Court, noting that the case presented very unusual circumstances, found that the claimants acted good faith in making their defense. The Court reversed and remanded. Jones et al. alleged that the owner's ship was wholly and irrevocably wrecked and that its officers and crews had abandoned it and that the entire destruction of both the ship and its cargo was inevitable. The Court found that the crew of the ship was lucky to get out alive. The Court further found that any transfer of the cargo from the wreck did not require any great expense, however, Jones et al. had to travel a great distance to transport the cargo to a better market, therefore, they were entitled to freight charges. When the property was brought to a port of safety, the salvage service was complete, and the respondent-claimant salvors should be allowed freight for carrying the owners' moiety over 20,000 miles to a better market, at the home port. 

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