By: William Tetley, Q.C.
I am often asked how I became a maritime lawyer, so here goes.
I joined Martineau Walker in 1952 and got into maritime law under strange circumstances. I had planned to be a tax lawyer and while studying law took accountancy at night with the Association of Chartered Accountants. But I never got a tax client, and I am in fact still waiting for my first tax case. During my second week in Martineau Walker, a New York cargo insurance manager appeared, brought into the office by Doug McRae Sr. The underwriter had been dissatisfied with the two large Montreal law firms doing maritime law, being Holden, Hutchison and Beauregard, Brisset, very good firms, with years of maritime practice, but who nevertheless acted for either shipowners or charterers and who handled the cargo claims with secondary attention.
The American insurance manager had a very small $200.00 cargo claim for shortage of flour shipped in cotton bags to Montreal. The partners told me that, because I looked old, (although all of 25 years, my hair was already falling out), they were going to introduce him to me and he would never suspect my youth and lack of experience. I was mortified, but jobs were hard to get then and now, and so I took the file (my first marine file) and went to work. I wrote a very long opinion (saying there was no chance of recovery) and he replied that I shouldn't write such long opinions in the future. He, however, sent another claim for a number of thousands of dollars for a shipment on a vessel called the SUNWHIT. I studied it carefully and saw that it was a good claim and that we should be successful.
I spoke to Bob Walker, one of the senior partners, and suggested to him that I should go to New York to see the claims manager who had sent the claim. Bob Walker was of the old school, who had been brought up in the Great Depression and said there was no money for such nonsense. I therefore hitch-hiked to New York, saw the claims manager, who phoned up claims managers from seven other marine insurance companies near-by (in the William Street, Pearl Street, Wall Street, Fulton Street area) and told each of them that he had a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed lawyer in his office from Montreal and did they have any claims on the SUNWHIT. In those days there were no containers and when a ship had cargo damage many cargo underwriters were affected. I went around and saw them all and picked up files from each of them. I checked out of the YMCA and in celebration, bought a set of golf clubs in a new golf bag and then hitch-hiked back to Montreal along the old highway #9 carrying the files and the golf bag. As I stood on the road, the truck drivers would shout "fore" out of the windows of their trucks as they rolled by. Eventually, one of them picked me up and took me all the way to Montreal.
In Montreal, I signed out files from the Registry of the Admiralty Court and studied how one sued in Admiralty, (our firm had never acted in Admiralty). I gave notice to Saguenay, who declined all responsibility for their ship, the SUNWHIT, but when I sued, they paid up after some pyrotechnics by Clem Holden & Lucien Beauregard and I sent out one of the biggest bills in the firm since before the Depression.
William Tetley is a professor of law at McGill University. He was a cabinet minister in the Government of Robert Bourassa from 1970 to 1976. He is the author of what is known as the bible of cargo claims - "Marine Cargo Claims" - which has been translated into Russian, Japanese and Chinese. He his working on the fourth edition. He is also counsel with Langlois Kronström Desjardins of Montreal and Quebec City.
Reprinted with permission of the of Fasken Martineau
From the Archives of Fasken Martineau
E-mail: william [dot] tetley [at] mcgill [dot] ca (William Tetley)
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