Mayer Opinion

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International Conciliation

Published monthly by the American Association for International Conciliation. Entered as second class matter at New York, N. Y., Post office, February 23, 1909, under act of July 16, 1894.


Opinion of Court, United States District Court, Southern District of New York – In the matter of the petition of the Cunard Steamship Company, Limited, as owners of the Steamship “Lusitania”, for limitation of its liability.


No. 132



After the destruction of the “Lusitania” a series of actions were begun against the Cunard Company. Some of these were brought in England and have not yet been tried. Sixty-seven actions at law and suits in Admiralty were instituted in the United States. Most of these were brought in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, but some were brought in the United States Courts, in Illinois and Massachusetts, and some in the New York State Supreme Court in New York and Kings Counties. All of the actions were brought either by passengers who claimed to have been injured or by their representatives of passengers who had lost their lives. The total damages demanded in the sixty-seven actions amounted to $5,883,479. Most of this was claimed for loss of life. The total claims for personal injuries amounted to $444,700 and there were some relatively small claims for loss of baggage. Many of the claimants contended that the Cunard Company was responsible because the speed of the ship had been reduced without notice, because ports were left open, because collapsible boats were not left open, because the crew did not distribute life belts, because the German Embassy in the United States had given public warning; because the Company did not direct the master of the ship to depart from the usual course, and failed to instruct him to make landfalls after dark, to cross the danger zone at the highest speed and to zigzag. They further claimed that the navigation of the ship was negligent; that the master disobeyed Admiralty instructions; that the Company had failed to provide a competent master and crew, and that after the torpedoing ports were left open and boats negligently handled. Some of the claimants, while admitting that the “Lusitania” was sunk by a public enemy, denied that the sinking was unlawful, and some claimed that the German Government had given due notice that vessels would be torpedoed without warning. One of the claimants contended that the “Lusitania” was loaded with highly explosive materials; that these exploded when the steamship was torpedoed by a German submarine; that the speed had been reduced to about eight nautical miles; that she carried the component parts of war vessels, to wit, of submarines; that she carried troops; that she was painted a grey color; that she carried gun cotton, nitroglycerine, dynamite and other munitions of war and highly dangerous explosives, and that she had the appearance and characteristics of a war vessel. Under the statutes of the United States it was permissible to consolidate and try together all these actions by means of a proceeding to limit liability of the owners of the “Lusitania.” Such a proceeding was accordingly brought in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, and the initial steps in that proceeding, as well as the trial itself, were had before Judge Julius M. Mayer, of that court. In that proceeding, the first issue was whether there was negligence on the part of either the Cunard Company or of the officers of the vessel. If it had been determined that there was [sic, were] negligence, the court would then have had to consider whether the negligent acts were the acts of the Company itself or of the officers of the vessel, for in the latter case the Company would be entitled to have its liability limited to the value of its interest in the S.S. “Lusitania” and her pending freight. From Judge Mayer’s opinion it will appear that the court held that there was no negligence and it was therefore not necessary for the court to consider the second question. In June, 1915, almost immediately following the destruction the “Lusitania,” a proceeding was had in the Wreck Commissioners’ Court in Great Britain to inquire as to the circumstances of the destruction of the vessel. Lord Mersey, Wreck Commissioner of the United Kingdom, presided at those proceedings which continued from June 15 to July 1, 1915, thirty-six witnesses being examined. All of the testimony taken before Lord Mersey which was deemed material by either side was offered at the trial before Judge Mayer. By reason of war conditions, it was necessary to take considerable additional testimony by commission before trial. The District Court accordingly issued two commissions to take testimony in the United States and one to take testimony in England. The latter commission was issued to Mr. R. V. Wynne, of London, and thirty-three witnesses were examined before him, the proceedings extending from June 12 to June 22, 1917. The trial itself was opened before Judge Mayer and continued from April 17 to May 6, 1918, forty witnesses being examined. After the conclusion of the testimony the case was orally argued and subsequently, on July 10, 1918, briefs were filed. Decision was rendered August 23, 1918.  

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