question declares that in the absence of such written notice, any claims "* * * shall be deemed to have been abandoned and no suit shall thereafter be maintainable to recover the same." The libellant concedes that it cannot prove compliance with the above provision, but aserts that its conduct upon learning of the damage to its cargo amounted to substantial compliance, and that therefore the respondent ought not be permitted to avoid its contractual liability on the basis of a mere technicality.
From the pleadings it appears that on December 27, 1963, the libellant's agent delivered to the respondent at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania twelve lifts of rolled steel in good condition for carriage to Long Beach, California. On January 19, 1964, the ship SS SEAMAR arrived at the port of delivery with the above mentioned cargo visibly damaged. The damages are asserted to approximate $5,748.98.
The respondent admits that libellant's representative in Long Beach, California took written exceptions to the condition of the cargo at the time of delivery on the delivery receipt. It admits further that its own surveyor personally examined the damaged cargo. However, it adamantly maintains that no payable claim developed for the reason that the contractual provision requiring written notice and claim was not strictly complied with. The required notice of claim in writing was not forwarded to the respondent until twenty-six days after final delivery of the cargo, and some thirty-six days after delivery of the first portion thereof.
The libellant, on the other hand, candidly admits that it had knowledge of the damage at the time of delivery, but that it cannot prove that written notice of claim was forwarded to the respondent within the specified time.
This then leads us to an examination of the authorities regarding interpretation and application of notice of claim provisions contained in bills of lading. In Admiralty, as elsewhere in the law, we begin with the general proposition, requiring no citation of authority, that people are free to contract as they see fit, provided that neither the law nor public policy is thereby contravened. Notice provisions in insurance policies and bills of lading alike have uniformly been upheld, provided that they are reasonable in light of the individual circumstances of the case. Such provisions are " * * * interpreted as a limitation on the shipper's remedy rather than on his substantive right of recovery." 4 Williston, Contracts § 1112 at 3165-66 (rev. ed. 1936, Supp. 1957). The reasonableness of individual provisions is determined not by evaluating the utility of the clause to the parties, but instead by determining "* * * the cargo owner's ability to comply with it in the circumstances." The J. L. Luckenbach, 65 F.2d 570, 574 (2nd Cir. 1933).
Notwithstanding the seemingly gossamer distinction between conditions precedent and subsequent, it is uniformly agreed, both in this Circuit and elsewhere, that such clauses are conditions precedent to the shipper's recovery. The Westminster, 127 F. 680 (3rd Cir. 1904), cert. denied 194 U.S. 637, 24 S. Ct. 860, 48 L. Ed. 1161 (1904); Cudahy Packing Co. v. Munson S.S. Line, 22 F.2d 898, 900 (2nd Cir. 1927); see cases collected at § 1112, n. 2a, 4 Williston, Contracts, supra. It now remains to be ascertained whether the libellant satisfied the condition.
The notice provision in the bill of lading in question is clear and unequivocal. It required at least two things of the libellant. First, it was required to notify the respondent of the existence of the DAMAGE; second, it was obligated to present a CLAIM for the damage. Both of these items had to be furnished in writing within the prescribed period of fifteen days. This Court's examination of the facts indicates that the condition was not satisfied.
When the shipment was delivered at Long Beach, California, it was clear to all parties that the cargo was in a damaged condition. It is true that the libellant orally advised the respondent's surveyor that a claim would be made for the damage, and that libellant's agent took exception to the damage on the delivery slip. However, a review of the authorities pertinent to the issue leaves little doubt as to whether this constituted satisfaction of the clause. For even if it be conceded that the written notation of damage on the delivery receipt constituted sufficient notice of damage, it could not be construed to be notice of a claim. In this area of the law involving bills of lading, these two items are conclusively deemed to be separate and distinct. The distinction is pointed up in The St. Hubert, 107 F. 727 (3rd Cir. 1901), cert. denied 181 U.S. 621, 21 S. Ct. 925, 45 L. Ed. 1032 (1901). Speaking through Judge Gray, the court there observed:
"The ship or its owner desires to know, not merely whether there is damage, for which no demand may ever be made, but whether there is any claim * * *, so that the necessary investigation can be made to ascertain the facts while they are fresh." (107 F. at 730). To the same effect see also The Westminster, supra.