ERROR to the circuit court of the district of Columbia; in an action on a policy of insurance on the cargo of the brig Fame, on a voyage from Alexandria, to, at, and from Barbadoes and four other ports in the West-Indies, and back to Alexandria, the vessel and cargo warranted American property. The vessel arrived at Barbadoes, and sailed from thence for Antigua, but on her voyage to that island was captured by a British vessel, and carried into Barbadoes, and there condemned in the vice-admiralty court, for attempting to break the blockade of Martinique. The jury found a special verdict, upon which the judgment below was in favour of the plaintiffs. The only question arising upon this special verdict was, whether the sentence of the court of vice-admiralty was conclusive evidence of an attempt to violate the blockade of Martinique. This question having been several times argued, (but not decided,) in the case of Fitzsimmons v. The Newport Insurance Company, at this term, (ante, p. 185.) the counsel submitted it to the court without further argument.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Johnson, J.
The action below was instituted on a policy of insurance.
On behalf of the insurers, it was contended that the policy was forfeited by committing a breach of blockade. It is not, and cannot be made a question, that this is one of those acts which will exonerate the underwriters from their liability. The only point below was relative to the evidence upon which the commission of the act may be substantiated. A sentence of a British prize court in Barbadoes was given in evidence, by which it appeared that the vessel was condemned for attempting to commit a breach of blockade. It is the English doctrine, and the correct doctrine on the law of nations, that an attempt to commit a breach of blockade is a violation of belligerent rights, and authorises capture. This doctrine is not denied, but the plaintiff contends that he did not commit such an attempt, and the court below permitted evidence to go to the jury to disprove the fact on which the condemnation professes to proceed.
On this point, I am of opinion that the court below erred.
I do not think it necessary to go through the mass of learning on this subject, which has so often been brought to the notice of this court, and particularly in the case of Fitzsimmons, argued at this term. Nearly the whole of it will be found very well summed up in the 18th chapter of Mr. Park's Treatise. The doctrine appears to me to rest upon three very obvious considerations: the propriety of leaving the cognizance of prize questions exclusively to courts of prize jurisdiction–the very great inconvenience amounting nearly to an impossibility of fully investigating such cases in a court of common law–and the impropriety of revising the decisions of the maritime courts of other nations, whose jurisdiction is co-ordinate throughout the world.
It is sometimes contended that this doctrine is novel, and that it takes its origin in an incorrect extension of the principle in Hughes v. Cornelius. I am induced to believe that it is coeval with the species of contract to which it is applied. Policies of insurance are known to have been brought into England from a country that acknowledged the civil law. This must have been the law of policies at the time when they were considered as contracts proper for the admiralty jurisdiction, and were submitted to the court of policies established in the reign of Elizabeth. It is probable that, at the time when the common law assumed to itself exclusive jurisdiction of the contract of insurance, the rule was too much blended with the law of policies to have been dispensed with, had it even been inconsistent with common law principles. But, in fact, the common law had sufficient precedent for this rule, in its own received principles relative to sentences of the civil law courts of England. It may be true that there are no cases upon this subject prior to that of Hughes v. Cornelius, but this does not disprove the existence of the doctrine. There can be little necessity for reporting decisions upon questions that cannot be controverted. Since the case of Hughes v. Cornelius, the doctrine has frequently been brought to the notice of the courts of Great Britain in insurance cases, but always with a view to contest its applicability to particular cases, or to restrict the general doctrine by exceptions, but the existence of the rule, or its applicability to actions on policies, is no where controverted.
I am of opinion that the sentence of condemnation was conclusive evidence of the commission of the offence for which the vessel was condemned, and as that offence was one which vitiated the policy, the defendants ought to have had a verdict.
The single question in this case is, whether the sentence of the admiralty court at Barbadoes, condemning the brig Fame and her cargo as prize, for an attempt to break the blockade of Martinique, is conclusive evidence against the insured, to falsify his warranty of neutrality, notwithstanding the fact stated in the sentence as the ground of condemnation is negatived by the jury?
This question has long been at rest in England. The established law upon this subject in the courts of that country is, that the sentence of a foreign court of competent jurisdiction condemning the property upon the ground that it was not neutral, is so entirely conclusive of the fact so decided, that it can never be controverted, directly or collaterally, in any other court having concurrent jurisdiction.
This doctrine seems to result from the application of a legal principle which prevails in respect to domestic judgment, to the judgments and sentences of foreign courts.
It is a well established rule in England, that the judgment, sentence, or decree of a court of exclusive jurisdiction directly upon the point, may be given in evidence as conclusive between the same parties, upon the same matter coming incidentally in question in another court for a different purpose. It is not only conclusive of the right which it establishes, but of the fact which it directly decides.
This rule, when applied to the sentences of courts of admiralty, whether foreign or domestic, produces the doctrine which I am now considering, upon the ground that all the world are parties in an admiralty cause. The proceedings are in rem, but any person having an interest in the property may interpose a claim, or may prosecute an appeal from the sentence. The insured is emphatically a party, and in every instance has an opportunity to controvert the alleged grounds of condemnation, by proving, if he can, the neutrality of the property. The master is his immediate agent, and he is also bound to act for the benefit of all concerned, so that, in this respect, he also represents the insurer. That irregularities have sometimes taken place, to the exclusion of a fair hearing of the parties, is not to be denied. But this furnishes no good reason against the adoption of a general rule. A spirit of comity has induced the courts of England to presume that foreign tribunals, whether of prize or municipal jurisdiction, will act ...