Dispute involves legal liability for a missing shipment of cigars.
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Professor Michael Sturley, right, talks with UT law students, including Sammy Ford, who will assist him and attorney David Frederick in a shipping law case before the Supreme Court in late March.
photo credit: Kelly West
A truck driver carrying nearly 2,500 cartons of cigars parked his rig at a closed gas station in Florida on March 17, 2003. When he returned the next day to continue his trip to Tampa, the container of cigars was gone.
And thus began a legal dispute that, thanks to the efforts of six law students and two professors at the University of Texas, will now be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal team took the case, at no charge to Altadis U.S.A. Inc., the Florida-based cigar company that never received its shipment, because the dispute raises important questions of liability involving goods shipped by sea and land.
"This isn't Bush versus Gore or one of the other sexy cases," said Michael Sturley, one of the professors and a specialist in maritime law. "But this affects over a trillion dollars in trade."
UT law professors are involved in three other cases pending before the nation's highest court. Those cases, all concerning the death penalty, will be argued before the court Wednesday.
The justices decided Friday to grant Altadis' "petition for certiorari" in the cigar case. Such a petition is a legal document asking the court to review a case.
The court grants a small fraction of the petitions it receives. During its most recent term, for instance, the court agreed to hear less than 1 percent of the cases submitted.
"Everyone's sort of shell-shocked and very happy about the impact we're having on American law, and, from a pedagogical standpoint, the tremendous opportunities it provides students in the clinics," said Larry Sager, dean of the UT Law School.
The law school operates clinics that give students, supervised by faculty members, the chance to work on real-world cases. The school's Supreme Court Clinic was formed in the fall, and the cigar case is its first undertaking.
At issue is how two federal transportation laws with different statutes of limitations come into play when goods are shipped by land and sea.
Altadis, whose brands include Dutch Masters, had purchased 2,478 cartons of cigars from a company in Puerto Rico, court records said. They were shipped to Jacksonville, Fla., and transferred to a truck for delivery to Altadis in Tampa. They never arrived. The container was found, empty, in South Dade County, Fla. The cigars were presumed to have been stolen.
Altadis sued Sea Star Line LLC, which handled the oceangoing portion of the journey, and American Trans-Freight Inc., which was responsible for the overland portion. The case, initially filed in a state court in Florida, eventually wound up in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta.
The 11th Circuit ruled that a one-year statute of limitations in the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act applies to both the land and sea portions of the shipment. Altadis did not serve its lawsuit on the defendants until a couple of weeks after the one-year deadline, and the company therefore cannot pursue the case, the court ruled.
But Sturley and David Frederick, a Washington lawyer who directs the UT clinic with Sturley, argued in court papers prepared with the help of the students that the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act applies only to the oceangoing portion of the shipment. The overland portion, they contend, is governed by another law, the Carmack Amendment, which has a two-year statute of limitations.
Most lawyers work an entire career without taking a case to the Supreme Court. For the UT students in the clinic, getting a case accepted on their first try is a thrill.
"I sent an e-mail out to everyone with 'cert granted' in all-capital letters with three exclamation points," said Scott Keller, a third-year law student in the clinic who plans to clerk for a federal appellate judge in California after graduation.
The students and Sturley will travel to Washington to attend oral arguments at the Supreme Court in late March. Frederick, a UT Law School graduate, will argue the case for Altadis in his 20th court appearance.