Butler v. Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company

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Butler v. Boston & S. S. S.C.ompany by Joseph P. Bradley
Syllabus
Court Documents
Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

130 U.S. 527

BUTLER  v.  BOSTON & S. S. S.C.OMPANY

These two cases are so intimately connected, both in the proceedings and in the questions arising therein, that it will be most convenient to consider them together. They arose out of the stranding, sinking, and total loss of the steam-ship City of Columbus, on Devil's Bridge, near Gay Head, at the western extremity of Martha's Vineyard, and near the mouth of Vineyard Sound, on the 18th of January, 1884. Most of the passengers and cargo were lost, and among the passengers lost was Elizabeth R. Beach, a single woman, of Mansfield, in the state of Connecticut. The appellants represent her, Nathaniel Beach being appointed administrator of her estate in Connecticut, Butler being appointed ancillary administrator in Massachusetts, and the other two appellants being (one an aunt and the other a niece of the deceased) dependent on her for support. The appellee, the Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company, was the owner of the ship. Soon after the disaster occurred, and early in February, 1884, one Brown and one Vance commenced each of them an action at law against the steam-ship company, in the superior court of the county of Suffolk, in Massachusetts, to recover damages for losses alleged to have been sustained by them by means of the stranding and sinking of the vessel. Thereupon the steam-ship company, on the 18th of February, 1884, in order to obtain the benefit of the law of limited liability, filed a libel in the district court of the United States for the district of Massachusetts, against the said Brown and Vance, and against all other persons who had suffered loss or damage by said disaster. This is one of the cases now before us on appeal. The libel was in the usual form of libels in causes of limited liability. It set forth the ownership of the vessel, the business in which she was employed, namely, as a passenger and freight steam-ship between Boston and Savannah, her seaworthiness, her being well and thoroughly officered and manned and furnished and equipped as the law required. It stated that on the 17th of January, 1884, she left Boston on a voyage to Savannah, having on board about 83 passengers and considerable merchandise, a list of the former, as far as known, and a schedule of the latter, being annexed to the libel. It stated that while prosecuting said voyage, and while on the high seas, to-wit, in or near Vineyard Sound, the steam-ship struck on the rocks near and off the shore at Gay Head, in Martha's Vineyard, in the district of Massachusetts, about half past three in the morning of January 18, 1884, and in a very few minutes thereafter keeled over, filled with, water, and sunk, becoming a total wreck and loss; that most of the passengers and crew, about 100 in number, were drowned and lost, those surviving claiming to have suffered great injury; and that all the property and effects of the passengers and crew, and all the cargo on board, (except a small part, salved in a damaged condition, and of little value,) together with said steam-ship, its machinery, tackle, apparel, and furniture, were destroyed and lost. The libel propounded other articles, as follows, to-wit: Fifth. All said great loss of life, injury, and damage to persons on board, and loss of and damage to property, were occasioned and incurred without the privity or knowledge of the libelant, the owner of said steam-ship. Sixth. The libelant further alleges that, as it is informed and believes, certain persons or corporations, owners or insurers of property on board, and lost or damaged by and at the loss of said steam-ship as aforesaid; certain other persons who claim to have been on board said steam-ship at the time of the loss aforesaid, and to have suffered in consequence thereof injuries and damage to their persons and property; and still other persons, claiming to represent persons drowned and lost in said disaster, and claiming to be entitled to recover and receive large sums of money on account of the death of and injury to said persons so represented by them,-all make, or may hereafter make, claim that the striking upon the rocks, and sinking and wreck of said steam-ship, and the loss of life, damage to persons and property aforesaid, were occasioned and incurred from the fault and neglect of the libelant, or its officers and agents, and that the libelant is liable and responsible to pay to them the loss and damages arising as aforesaid; all of which claims and allegations the libelant denies, and, on the contrary, it alleges that all such losses and damages were occasioned or incurred without its neglect, fault, privity, or knowledge, and, as it is informed and believes, without the neglect or fault of its officers or agents, or any of them.' Eighth. The losses and damage to persons and property incurred and occasioned by the said stranding, sinking, and loss of said steam-ship, and the alleged claims and liabilities made against the libelant, by reason thereof, greatly exceed the amount or value of the interest of the libelant, as owner, in said steam-ship, her machinery, tackle, apparel, and furniture, immediately after said loss, and in her freight then pending. Upon and after the happening of said loss said steam-ship, her machinery, tackle, apparel, and furniture became a wreck and total loss, and, the libelant is informed and believes, were then practically worthless, and the libelant's interest therein became and was of little or no value. The gross freight then pending on the voyage of said steam-ship to Savannah was of the value of about $1,000. Ninth. The libelant, while not admitting, but denying, that it is under any liability for the acts, losses, and damages aforesaid, and desiring and claiming the right in this court to contest any such liability of itself or of said steam-ship, claims and is entitled to have limited its liability, as owner, therefor, (if any such liability shall hereafter be found to exist,) to the amount or value of its interest, as owner, in such steam-ship after said loss, and her freight then pending. Tenth. Said steam-ship, in her damaged and wrecked condition, now lies sunken near the shore at Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard, within this district, and within the jurisdiction and process of this honorable court.'

The libelant thereupon claimed and petitioned that, in case it should be found that there was any liability for the acts, losses, and damages aforesaid, upon said steam-ship City of Columbus, or the libelant, as owner thereof, (which liability the libelant did not admit, but expressly and wholly denied, and desired in that court to contest,) such liability should in no event exceed the amount or value of the interest of the libelant, as owner, in said steam-ship and her freight then pending, as by law provided; and to that end the libelant prayed that all claims for loss, damage, or injury to persons or property by reason of the premises might be heard and determined in that court, and apportioned according to law, and that due appraisement might be ordered and made of the ship, her machinery and furniture, and of her pending freight at the time of the loss, offering to pay the appraised value into court or give proper stipulation therefor, and that monition in due form should issue against said Brown and Vance and any and all persons claiming damages by reason of the premises, citing them to appear, etc., and that all actions and suits concerning the matters set forth might be restrained and enjoined. Upon the filing of this libel a monition was duly issued and published, and an injunction against actions and suits was granted, issued, and published. The monition was returnable to the 1st day of July, 1884. Notwithstanding these proceedings, the appellants, on the 27th of September, 1884, filed a libel against the steam-ship company, in the same district court for the district of Massachusetts, to recover damages for the death of said Elizabeth R. Beach. This is the other suit now before us on appeal. After stating the engagement of passage by Miss Beach on the steam-ship from Boston to Savannah, the character of the vessel as a coastwise sea-going steam-ship in the coasting trade, under enrollment and license, and the circumstances of the stranding and loss, and the drowning of Miss Beach, the libel of the appellants averred and charged that the disaster was caused by negligence on the part of those employed by the steam-ship company in managing the ship, and by inefficiency in the discipline of the officers and crew, and that no proper measures were taken to save the passengers. The libel further alleged that at the time of the disaster the second mate, one Harding, was in charge of the ship, and was not a pilot for those waters; that it was a part of his duty to take charge of the ship alternately with the first mate; that it was an omission of duty on the part of the owner to intrust to the second mate the charge of the ship without the aid of a special pilot; and that no pilot was on duty on the ship at the time of the accident. The libel further alleged that 'there was not proper apparatus on the vessel for launching the boats;' 'that the ship was not properly constructed in respect to bulkheads and otherwise;' and that there was unfitness, gross negligence, or carelessness on the part of the servants and agents of the respondents engaged in navigating the ship, and in not taking proper measures to save the passengers, and as displayed in the inefficiency of the discipline of the officers and crew of the vessel; and that in respect to these matters there was negligence and carelessness on the part of the owner. The libel further set out a statute of Massachusetts of the following purport, to-wit: 'If the life of a passenger is lost by reason of the negligence or carelessness of the proprietor or proprietors of a steam-boat, or stage-coash, or of common carriers of passengers, or by the unfitness or gross negligence or carelessness of their servants or agents, such proprietor or proprietors and common carriers shall be liable in damages not exceeding five thousand nor less than five hundred dollars, to be assessed with reference to the degree of culpability of the proprietor or proprietors or common carriers liable, or of their servants or agents, and recovered in an action of tort, commenced within one year from the injury causing the death, by the executor or administrator of the deceased person, for the use of the widow and children of the deceased, in equal moieties, or, if there are no children, to the use of the widow, or, if no widow, to the use of the next of kin.' The libel further alleged that after the vessel struck, said Elizabeth R. Beach suffered great mental and bodily pain upon the vessel, and was afterwards washed into the sea, and drowned; that the value of her clothing and baggage lost was $150; and that by virtue of the premises, and under the general admiralty jurisdiction of the United States, the libelants were entitled to recover $50,000, and by virtue of the statute of Massachusetts, $5,000. The steamship company thereupon, on the 10th day of October, 1884, filed an exception and plea to this libel, setting up in bar the record and proceedings of the cause of limited liability previously instituted by them in the same district court, and then pending. To meet this exception, the appellants, on the 16th of December, 1884, filed an amendment to their libel, by way of replication, in which they claimed the benefit of the steam-boat inspection act, passed February 28, 1871, (title 52, Rev. St. U.S.,) which makes many regulations respecting the steam machinery and apparatus of steam-vessels of the United States in the merchant service, navigating the waters of the United States, and respecting their construction and manner of lading, and accommodating passengers and merchandise, and the officers and crews with which they are to be manned, and requires sea-going steamers in the coasting trade, when under way, and not on the high seas, to be under the control and direction of pilots licensed by the steam-boat inspectors, imposes penalties for loss of life through negligence and inattention, and gives damages to the full amount against the vessel and her master and owner to persons injured, if the injury happens through any neglect or failure to comply with the provisions of the law, or through any known defects or imperfections of the steaming apparatus, or of the hull. Rev. St. tit. 52, passim, §§ 4401, 4493. The appellants averred that the City of Columbus was subject to this law, and when the catastrophe happened was within the waters of the state of Massachusetts, and not upon the high seas, and not under the control of a licensed pilot. They further averred that there was connivance, misconduct, or violation of law on the part of the owner in not providing or procuring the vessel to be under the control and direction of a licensed pilot, and that there was misconduct, negligence, and inattention to duty on the part of the captain, second mate, or other persons employed on the vessel, by which connivance, misconduct, and negligence the life of said Elizabeth R. Beach was destroyed. On the same day, the 16th of December, 1884, the appellants appeared to the libel of the steam-ship company in the cause of limited liability, and filed a pleading which they entitled an answer, petition, and exceptions, and by which they set up substantially the same matter as had been averred in their libel and the amendment thereto; and in addition they alleged that at the time of the disaster the steamer and her freight were substantially insured, and that the owners had received, or were entitled to receive, a large amount of money for said insurance, and would thereby be substantially indemnified for the loss of vessel and freight. Afterwards, on the 19th of January, 1885, the appellants moved in the same cause that the steam-ship company be ordered to pay into court the said insurance money. To this motion the company filed a written reply, in which they set up the fact that in pursuance of an order of the court they had entered into stipulation to pay into court the amount of the appraised value of their interest in the ship and freight. They further averred that, in pursuance of a covenant made at the time of their purchasing the said steam-ship, in the mortgage given for the purchase money, all the insurance procured by them had been assigned and made payable to the vendors and mortgagees, for whose benefit and security the policies were kept on foot; and said parties had collected the insurance money, and applied it in part payment of the mortgage notes, and the libelants, the Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company, had not collected or received any part of it. To this answer the appellants filed an exception in the nature of a demurrer. Upon these pleadings the parties agreed upon a statement of facts, which, after stating the titles of the two causes, was as follows, to-wit:

'Statement of Agreed Facts. In the above-entitled causes the following facts are agreed by the Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company and John Haskell Butler, administrator, et al., party excepting to said libel of said company: First. All the allegations contained in the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-third, and twenty-fourth articles of the answer, petition, and exceptions of said John Haskell Butler, administrator, et al., in said suit, are true. Second. Except as relieved or affected by the limited liability act of 1851, (Rev. St. U.S. §§ 4283-4285,) and the rules of the United States supreme court thereunder, the libelant, ship-owner, is liable for all loss and damage caused by the stranding of said steam-ship City of Columbus. Third. In respect to the cause of the disaster alleged, the respondents claim, in addition to the concession by libelant, the B. & S. Steam-Ship Company, of negligence on the part of their agents and servants, as above agreed, that at the time of disaster the second mate was in charge of the ship; that he was not a pilot for the waters upon which the ship was then going, and was not licensed as a pilot by the inspectors of steam-boats; and that no pilot was on duty on said ship at the time of the disaster; and, further, that the disaster was owing to the unfitness, gross negligence, or carelessness of the servants or agents of the libelant, who were engaged in navigating the ship at the time of the disaster, so that the case was within section 6 of chapter 73 of the Public Statutes of Massachusetts. The libelant denies all these allegations, and claims that they are immaterial to the issues of the cause, if true, and that the captain was in charge of the ship at the time of the disaster. Fourth. Said loss and damage were without the privity and knowledge of the libelant, the Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company, the sole owner of said steam-ship. Fifth. Said steam-ship was a coastwise, sea-going vessel, under entrollment, and was, at and before the time of loss, subject to all the laws and rules of navigation applicable to laws and rules of navigation applicable to a voyage from Boston to Savannah, Ga., and proceeding through Vineyard Sound, stranding on Devil's Bridge, off and near Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard. And to this extent the respondents, Butler et als., qualify any admission in their answer to the third article of the libel of the company; and the company qualify any averment pertinent thereto in said article. Sixth. After the filing of the libel or petition in this cause, the court caused due appraisement to be had of the amount or value of the interest of the libelant, as owner, in such ship and her freight for the voyage, and thereupon made an order for the giving of a stipulation, with sureties for the payment thereof, into court, whenever the same shall be ordered; and upon due compliance with this order the court issued a monition, February 28, 1884, against all persons claiming damages for any such loss, embezzlement, destruction, damage, or injury, citing them to appear before the said court, and make due proof of their respective claims at or before July 1, 1884, and public notice of such monition was given as required; and thereafter, on the application of said owner, the court made an order to restrain the further prosecution of all and any suit or suits against said owner in respect of any such claim or claims, all as provided in the admiralty rules of the United States supreme court. Seventh. The Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company is a corporation organized under the laws of the state of Massachusetts, and is located at Boston, in said state.'

The following additional statement was agreed to in the action of the appellants, to-wit: '(1) Except as relieved or affected by the limited liability act of 1851, (Rev. St. U.S. §§ 4283-4285,) and the rules of the United States supreme court thereunder, the respondent, ship-owner, is liable for all loss and damage caused by the stranding of said steam-ship City of Columbus. (2) The respondent claims that the captain was in charge of the ship at the time of the disaster. (3) Said loss and damage were without the privity and knowledge of the respondent, the Boston & Savannah Steam-Ship Company, the sole owner of said steam-ship. (4) Said steam-ship was a coastwise, sea-going vessel, under enrollment, and was, at and before the time of loss, subject to all the laws and rules of navigation applicable to such vessels; and at the time of loss was on a voyage from Boston to Savannah, Ga., and proceeding through Vineyard Sound, stranding on Devil's Bridge, off and near Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard.' The two causes were argued together upon the pleadings and these statements of fact, and on the 10th of April, 1885, the following decrees were made, to-wit: In the suit of the appellants the following decree was made: 'This cause was heard upon libel, and respondent's exceptions thereto, and upon agreed facts, and, it appearing to the court that the record alleged in said exceptions exists, it is thereupon ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the exceptions be sustained, and the libel dismissed, with costs.' In the limited liability cause the following decree was made: 'It is found and decreed by the court that the libelant is entitled to the limitation of liability for loss of life, and other damage, as claimed in said libel; and that evidence tending to establish the facts, claimed by the respondents in clause 3 of the agreed facts on file, is immaterial, and therefore inadmissible, and that the allegations in the libelant's answer to respondents' motion that insurance money be paid into court are true; and it is thereupon ordered, adjudged, and decreed by the court that the said respondents' exceptions to the libelants' answer to said respondents' motion that insurance money be paid into court be overruled, and their said motion denied; and that the exceptions of said respondents to the libel be overruled, and their petition be dismissed.' These decrees were affirmed by the circuit court, and from the decree of the latter court the present appeal was taken.

Frank Goodwin and Eugene P. Carver, for Butler, administrator.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 538-548 intentionally omitted]

C. T. Russell, Jr., for appellee.

BRADLEY, J.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).