Philadelphia Legal Scene
The American legal profession grew up in this town, creating institutions and traditions that set the style for everyone else. Boston, New York and Washington have lots of influential lawyers, but Philadelphia shapes the legal profession.
Insurance in Philadelphia
Early Philadelphia took a lead in insurance innovation. Some ideas, like life insurance, flourished. Others have faded.
Historical Motor Excursion North of Philadelphia
The narrow waist of New Jersey was the upper border of William Penn's vast land holdings, and the outer edge of Quaker influence. In 1776-77, Lord Howe made this strip the main highway of his attempt to subjugate the Colonies.
New Jersey (State of)
The Garden State really has two different states of mind. The motto is Liberty and Prosperity.
It's generally agreed, railroads failed to adjust their fixed capacity to changing demands. It's less certain Philadelphia was pulled down by that collapsing rail system.
Right Angle Club 2008
A report, to the year 2008 shareholders of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia, by the outgoing president, Neale Bringhurst...
Westphalia: Church Politics Adjusts Boundaries, Then Everything Changes
In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia created the modern nation-state.
South Amboy, New Jersey, is a waterfront industrial town on a remote promontory behind Staten Island, jutting into lower New York Bay. It's across the Raritan River from historically important Perth Amboy, but it's fair to say that few people ever heard of South Amboy until sunset on May 18, 1950, when they suddenly heard a lot. An entire freight train, five lighters, and a railroad pier suddenly exploded and disappeared. About twenty-five people were never seen again; the largest piece of metal from the explosion was only about a foot in length. A significant part of the town was leveled, steeples were knocked off churches, and windows were broken in five surrounding counties. Considering what caused it, it seems remarkable that so few people were killed. The explanation usually given is that the explosion blew straight up and straight down; the distant windows were smashed by pressure implosion.
When Pakistan split off from the rest of India, there were bloody migrations in which millions of people died. So Pakistan bought the rights to the design of certain land mines to protect its new borders and contracted with a firm in Newark, Ohio to manufacture the mines. Two trainloads of these explosives were shipped from Ohio to a railroad pier owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad in South Amboy, to be lightered out to a waiting cargo ship and sent to Pakistan. The first of these two shiploads sailed off uneventfully, and on May 1, 1950, the second shipment had already left Ohio and was underway, when the Coast Guard suddenly declared the South Amboy pier to be closed and forbidden. As the train chugged slowly eastward, frenzied negotiations took place with Admirals in Washington. There was plenty of time, because the train moved very, very slowly and it was detoured over six different railroads to Wilmington Delaware, where the Hercules Powder Company had packed two freight cars with dynamite, which were to be hooked onto the end of the train as it inched its convoluted way to South Amboy.
|South Amboy Explodes|
The method of packing the land mines was of some importance during the huge litigation which inevitably followed. Land mines were packed in cardboard boxes about six feet long, divided into six compartments. Our own Army regulations about such things state that never, never should fuse be packed in the same carton with the mines. However, this particular shipment had five mines to a carton, with the fuses in the sixth. It was later argued that this particular arrangement proved harmless in the first of the two Pakistan shipments, but there was the testimony that defective fuses were removed from those boxes and passed back up the line, where those deemed satisfactory were re-packed in the cartons which were in this, the second shipment. A fuse, by the way, does not quite describe these objects, which were screwed into a hole provided on the bomb part. They contained a spring and a steel ball in a tube; when the gadget was cocked it was held by a hare-trigger. The idea was that the pressure of stepping on the mine shot the steel ball into the ball of explosives, and boom.
The railroad ammunition pier, for some reason called The Artificial Island, consisted of two rail lines extending a quarter mile from land, but no structures. Stevedores transferred the boxes from the train to the lighters, and then five lighters took the partial shipments out to the anchorage where the ocean freighter was waiting. The deck of the lighters was lower than the train tracks, so a wooden ramp was laid from the freight car to the lighter, resting on several mattresses on deck. It all worked on the first shipment, didn't it?
Well, it didn't work this time, and we have no way of knowing who stumbled or dropped something; we only know it all went sky-high. For this, the ship-owners were delighted because it is a well-established principle of Admiralty law that unless the ship was in contact with the owners, their liability is limited to the value of the damaged vessel. Under conditions of total disintegration, that means the lighters had a liability of zero. But there were six railroads, the Pakistani government, the Coast Guard and the two manufacturers of the explosives available to sue. Everybody had insurance, so a dozen insurance companies were involved. All of the victims and hundreds of people with property damage, all had lawyers; everyone agrees that many lasting friendships were established among lawyers who were milling around. Finally, the judge declared this case just had to be settled, or else it would continue for the rest of everybody's lifetime. The total amount of the claims submitted came to $55 million. Obviously, the settlement would be for less than that, but settlements are kept secret and you are not supposed to know how it turned out.
So, the question that remained was this. If everybody was insured, why not let the insurance companies haggle about who owed what to whom. Why did all of those railroads have lawyers hanging around? Well, the answer is a lesson for all of us. You need a lawyer to watch your insurance company's lawyer, because once a claim action begins, you and your insurance company develop a conflict of interest.
Originally published: Wednesday, July 02, 2008; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019
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