U.S. Supreme Court
TAXIER v. SWEET, 2 U.S. 81 (1766)
2 U.S. 81 (Dall.)
Taxier, et. al.
Sweet, et. al.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
September Term, 1766
The plaintiff brought an action of Trover, against the defendants, for a vessel and cargo, returnable to the Common Pleas of June term, 1769. The declaration recited, that the plaintiffs were possessed of the vessel and cargo, to wit, at Philadelphia County, the 31st of March, 1762; that they casually lost them; that the said 31st of March, they came to the possession of the defendants by finding; and that nevertheless the defendants, knowing the goods to belong to the plaintiffs, did not deliver them, &c. but afterwards, on the same day and year, converted them to their own use, at Philadelphia County, &c.
The action being removed into this Court, was referred at April term, 1771, and the referrees reported L 2,900 to be due to the plaintiffs, subject to the opinion of the Court, on the point of law arising from the following facts.
The defendants, Samuel Sweet, commander of a privateer, Abraham Whipple, James Potter, and William Davis, commanders of vessels with Letters of Marque, did forcibly take on the high seas near Monte Christi, in the Island of Hispaniola, in the West-Indies, (where the vessel was lying at anchor) the ship called the Maria Francina, with her cargo, being the property of the plaintiffs, and carried her with her cargo into Rhode Island; at which place she and her cargo were condemned as prize and sold, as appeared by the proceedings of the Court of Vice Admiralty there. But on an appeal to the Court of Lord Commissioners of appeals, they, by their final decree, reversed the sentence of condemnation, as appeared by a certificate of the proceedings of that tribunal.
The question to be decided, on the preceding state of the case, was whether an action at common law lies for the plaintiffs
as now brought? And it was twice argued by Waln, for the defendants, and by Dickinson, for the plaintiffs.
For the Defendants. The Courts of Common Law have a jurisdiction over all matters of dispute, which begin on the land; but where the dispute, or cause of action, arises at sea, the Admiralty has the sole cognizance, and the Courts of Common Law have no right to interfere. Thus, if an action is brought at Common Law for a taking, it is a good bar to plead that the taking was on the high seas; and even supposing the conversion was on land, yet that is coupled with the original taking, and draws the cognizance to the Admiralty. It is admitted, that if the plaintiffs were without a remedy expressly given by law, the Judges would provide some remedy to redress the injury which has been sustained: But where the law prescribes a particular mode of redress, the Judges are not at liberty to invent and allow a new one. The legal appropriate methods of redress in this case, are either by writ of restitution, founded on the reversal of the sentence of the Vice Admiralty of Rhode Island, or by suit upon the stipulations which were taken in that Court. No action like the present, has ever been instituted; which, according to Littleton, is a good argument that no such action can be maintained.
But waving, for a moment, the question of jurisdiction, the action of Trover, is not the proper action: It should be a special action on the case, setting forth all the particular circumstances of the transaction. For, in Trover three points are essential to be proved: 1st. The plaintiff's property; 2ndly. A possession in the defendant; and 3rdly. A conversion by the defendant to his own use. Now, the plaintiff's property was unquestionably altered; and, in law, or fact, they had no property in the vessel or cargo, at the time the writ was issued; both having been sold, as perishable goods, under the sentence of the Court of Admiralty; and, consequently, all the property of the plaintiffs (without which they cannot maintain Trover) was completely divested. Nor were the vessel and cargo ever converted to the use of the defendants: They seized them in the execution of their duty as officers; they pursued the legal steps to get them condemned; and while the cause was in suit, the property was in custodia legis. But even supposing that a forcible taking might be construed into a conversion (which, however, is denied in Bundbury's Reports,) yet still the action fails; for some of the Captains, being at a distance when the seizure was made, were not parties to the force, nor, consequently, to the constructive conversion, and, therefore, ought not to have been joined as defendants.