The Scotia

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United States Supreme Court

81 U.S. 170

The Scotia

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, in a case of collision between the American ship Berkshire and the British steamer Scotia, by which the ship was sunk and totally lost.

On the 9th of January, 1863, a British order in council, authorized by virtue of the Merchant [[|[[|Shipping Amendment]]]] Act of July 29th, 1862 (25 and 26 Victoria), made a body of 'Regulations for preventing collisions at sea.' Among these were 'Rules concerning lights,' and 'Steering and sailing rules.'

In the first class were these:


ART. 3. Sea-going steamships when under way shall carry—

(a) At the foremast head, a bright white light . . . of such a character as to be visible on a dark night, with a clear atmosphere, at a distance of at least five miles.

(b) On the starboard side a green light, &c., visible on a dark night, with a clear atmosphere, at a distance of at least two miles.

(c) On the port side a red light, &c., visible on a dark night, with a clear atmosphere, at a distance of at least two miles.

(d) The said green and red side-lights shall be fitted with inboard screens, projecting at least three feet forward from the light so as to prevent these lights being seen across the bow.


ART. 6. Sailing vessels under way . . . shall carry the same lights as steamships under way, with the exception of the white masthead lights, which they shall never carry.

In the steering and sailing rules was this one— SAILING SHIP AND SHIP UNDER STEAM.

If two ships, one of which is a sailing ship and the other a steamship are proceeding in such directions as to involve risk of collision, the steamship shall keep out of the the way of the sailing ship.

All these regulations, as originally promulgated by Great Britain, were made applicable to all ships, whatever their nationality, within the limits of British jurisdiction, and to British and French ships whether within British jurisdiction or not. The Merchant [[|[[|Shipping Amendment]]]] Act, in virtue of which these regulations were passed, provided also that whenever it should be made to appear to the British government, that the government of any foreign country was willing that these regulations should apply to the ships of such country, when beyond the limits of British jurisdiction, Her Britannic Majesty might, by order in council, direct that such regulations should apply to the ships of such foreign country, whether within British jurisdiction or not.

On the 29th April, 1864, [1] the Congress of the United States passed its 'act fixing certain rules and regulations for preventing collisions on the water,' and these rules as respects sea-going vessels being, to all intents, identical with those above quoted from the British act, the British government regarded the act of Congress as an expression by our government, that it was willing that the British regulations should apply to our ships when beyond the limits of British jurisdiction. The British government accordingly, by order in council, directed that the regulations should apply to all sea-going vessels of the United States, whether within British jurisdiction or not.

The governments of various other countries soon also manifested their willingness that the British regulations should apply to their ships respectively, when beyond the limits of British jurisdiction; and orders in council accordingly directed that such regulations should apply to the ships of such countries respectively, whether within British jurisdiction or not. The countries referred to were Austria, the Argentine Republic, Belgium, Brazil, bremen, Chili, Denmark proper, the Republic of the Equator, France, Greece, Hamburg, Hanover, the Hawaiian Islands, Hayti, Italy, Lubeck, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Oldenburg, Peru, Portugal, Prussia, the Roman States, Russia, Schleswig, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Uruguay. These orders in council were published at various dates, from January 13th, 1863, to February 6th, 1866. All countries named except Denmark, Greece, the Hawaiian Islands, Schleswig, and the United States, adopted the regulations in 1863.

With these various statutes and orders in existence, the Scotia, a British steamer of the Cunard line, steering west by north one-half north, was sailing about midnight on the 8th of April, 1867, near mid-ocean, from Liverpool towards New York. Her lookouts were properly set, and her lights rightly stationed, that is to say, a white light was at her masthead, a green light on her starboard or right side, and a red light on her port or left side; all burning brightly.

Sailing at the same hour, equally about mid-ocean, the Berkshire, a sailing ship belonging to the American marine, was on her voyage from New Orleans to Havre, and with a wind free, blowing from about south-southwest, was pursuing a course southeast by east one-half east, as indicated by the following diagram. The courses of the two vessels thus intersected at an angle of exactly one point.

The Berkshire had no colored lights anywhere; nor any light but a white light, and this was at her bow, fastened to her anchor-stock, and raised about four feet above her deck. Of course, if the Scotia should mistake this light for a light fastened on the masthead of the Berkshire, she would infer from its apparent proximity to the water that the Berkshire was far off.

The Scotia was first seen from the Berkshire bearing one point or so off the ship's port bow, at a distance apparently of five or six miles. Then the steamer's white masthead light only was seen.

Immediately on her sighting the steamer, which was at most from fifteen to twenty minutes before the collision, her mate gave an order to luff, and she did luff, so as to head more into the wind. The effect of this was to make her go further to the south and thus diverge farther from the course of the steamer. She continued in this new direction ten or fifteen minutes, when, moving at the rate at which it was proved that the vessels were moving, she could not have been more than one or two miles from the Scotia. Her helm was then suddenly put to starboard, then steadied for a brief period, then put hard a-starboard and kept there, thus pointing her directly across the bow of the approaching vessel. By keeping her helm hard a-starboard she was made to change her course constantly. The diagram on the preceding page may perhaps assist the reader's comprehension. The dotted lines represent the Berkshire's movements.

Before she bore away the red light of the steamer was seen by her wheelsman, and probably by her lookout, if not indeed by her master.

The Scotia saw the white light on the Berkshire in due time, and first saw it off her port bow, from one to two points. Seeing a white light, the deck officer of the Scotia took the vessel for a steamer, and from the proximity of the light to the water inferred that she was far off; coming in fact just above the horizon, and accounting for the nonappearance of the usual colored lights because he supposed that they had not come up to view. [2] He thus not only supposed the Berkshire to be a steamer, but judged that the supposed steamer was at a much greater distance than it was in fact. As already signified, the location of the light warranted the supposition, and its color gave no indication that it was on a sailing vessel. After its discovery the ship's light opened on the steamer's port bow; how much it opened was a matter somewhat agitated by the witnesses and the counsel, though this court considered that matter immaterial, because if it receded at all it indicated that there was then no danger of collision without some change of course, and consequently no necessity to take measures to avoid one. The weight of the evidence was that the ship had not then turned her course northward, but if she had it was still proved that her light opened on the Scotia's port side, after it was first seen, and before the steamer's course was changed. Soon after, and because of the ship's change of course, her light began to close in on the steamer's bow, and then for the first time was there any apparent danger of collision. Then the Scotia's helm was immediately ported, then hard ported, and observing that the ship's light still closed in, orders were given, in quick succession, to half-speed, slow, reverse, and back, but notwithstanding these orders, which were all promptly obeyed, the vessels came together in the position indicated on the diagram, and the Berkshire with her cargo went right down in mid-ocean.

The owners of the Berkshire, one Sears and others, now for themselves and the owners of the cargo, filed their libel in the District Court at New York, to recover the loss sustained by the collision. The libel charged, of course, that the collision occurred through the fault of the Scotia. The District Court decreed for the respondents. The view of that court was, that courts of admiralty were now required to take judicial notice of the existence of the British orders in council, and of the fact that so numerous maritime states had accepted them; that so general and adoption by such states of one rule had made a rule and usage of the sea; that by this rule and usage-in other words, by the law of the sea as it existed at the time of the collision the Berkshire was bound to exhibit colored lights, and colored lights alone; and that as she had not done so, she had no remedy. the decree, therefore, was, that the libel be dismissed; and the Circuit Court affirming this decree, the case was now here for review.

Mr. J. C. Carter, for the appellants:

The theory of the libellants is readily perceived. The Scotia's white light was first made about one point on the Berkshire's bow, and some twenty minutes before the collision. The mate supposed it to be a sailing vessel standing to the westward and closehauled on the wind. As the Berkshire was sailing free, it was her duty to keep out of the way of other sailing vessels who were closehauled. The man at the wheel was therefore ordered to keep his luff, that is, to run nearer to the wind, which was done, and the course of the Berkshire thus changed to windward about three-quarters of a point. Finding that the luffing did not have the effect of shaking the light off his bow, and supposing that the course of the vessel was nearly opposite to his, but really crossing his bow, he deemed it the safest course to starboard the helm and bear away before the wind while the light was yet a great way off and there was ample time. This was accordingly done. The light of the Scotia was soon under the effect of the starboarding brought upon the starboard side. The ship was kept away under her starboard helm until the light was brought abaft the beam on the starboard side, and then the helm was steadied. Soon after a red light was discovered, and then they were satisfied that the vessel was a steamer. The helm was ordered again hard a-starboard, but the steamer came up with rapidity and struck the ship, breaking her open.

Now we think that this is a view which ought to exculpate the ship. She did just what it was natural for her to do, and, in the darkness of the night, proper. It is perfectly settled in this court that it is the duty of steamers to keep clear of sailing vessels. No rule of the sea has been as emphatically declared of late times. We need not quote authorities to that point. The Scotia, in view of the great liability to error as to the position and distance of lights on the water at night, ought to have somewhat changed her course or slowed up, so soon as she saw how nearly the courses met.

The argument of the other side of course will be that we did not carry the side lights prescribed by the act of Congress and by the British admiralty regulations. This is admitted by us. Thus it is said that we violated our statutes. But the act of Congress prescribing the lights which sailing vessels are to carry is but a municipal regulation of the United States; and the Scotia cannot avail herself of such a statute to convict an American vessel of a tort on the high seas. All the questions in controversy are to be determined without reference to the municipal laws of either nation, and solely according to the general maritime law; and by that law there was no obligation on the Berkshire to exhibit any side lights, or not to exhibit a white light.

This precise question has arisen in England, and has been determined by a series of decisions of the highest authority. The question has arisen in every variety of form; sometimes the defendants, foreigners, seeking to bind the plaintiffs, British citizens, by the provisions of British statutes, and at others, British plaintiffs claiming the benefit of British statutes against foreign defendants. But the decision has been the same in all. [3]

Nor is the position tenable, that inasmuch as the obligations resting on the Scotia by a British statute relating to lights were the same with those resting upon the Berkshire, the rule should be enforced in this suit on some principle of reciprocity. That question is strikingly concluded by authority. It happened to the principal libellant (Mr. Sears), to invoke in his own behalf, in a British tribunal, on this very notion of reciprocity, in a collision cause, in which his ship was libelled by British citizens, the protection of a British statute; and he supported his claim by proof that the United States had made a like enactment. The question was most elaborately considered by Dr. Lushington, and determined against him. [4] In the face of this decision, it would be a singular exhibition of reciprocity, to yield to the claim of the Scotia.

There can be no reasonable doubt that this case is to be governed, not by the municipal law of either the United States or Great Britain, but by the maritime law. The main question is, what is that law? It is conceded that, at least until a recent period, it imposed no obligation upon either of the vessels to carry colored lights, or precluded either from carrying a white light. Now, has this law been changed? No change has been proved, nor any evidence offered tending to show such a change. Indeed, it is believed to have been the practice at the time, and to a great extent is now, for sailing vessels not to exhibit colored lights when away from the shore. But, conceding that any number of municipal ordinances were proved, they do not make any change in the maritime law. The high seas are outside of the territory of municipal powers, and their laws have no force there. Nor can any force be derived from them when taken together. It cannot be maintained when the laws of Great Britain, the United States, and France have, neither separately nor collectively, any effect whatever on the sea, that still if the concurring statutes of substantially all other maritime states were added, the combined effect would be to give to them effect there. How many nations must join? Who is to determine what is a maritime state, in order to know whether all have joined? Who or what is to apprise the unlettered mariner that the municipal statutes of all nations have at last been brought into harmony?

The municipal ordinances relied on by the District Court do not constitute a body of statutes enacted by the nations collectively, nor do they constitute anything in the nature of a convention or treaty; at all events, not so far as the United States are concerned, and the other powers, save Great Britain. They are municipal statutes, and nothing more. Great Britain, indeed, by her act, seems to indicate that in her view, as soon as other nations pass acts similar to her own, she will deem this to be an assent to a proposition made by her, and will then regard a convention as agreed upon, which her courts are to respect; and it may be very proper for her courts to act accordingly. But the United States have never done anything of the kind.

On the view of the District Court, that these concurring municipal enactments change the law of the sea, the question arises, at what point does this change become affectual? Is it when two, or three, or four, or what number of maritime states have concurred in the legislation? In the absence of any authoritative declaration by his own country, when is the American navigator to know that the law springs into operation? In short, the whole view of the District Court, whose decree was affirmed in the Circuit Court, is so embarrassed with difficulty, that however plausible it may be it cannot be safely maintained in practice.

Messrs. D. D. Lord and E. C. Benedict, contra.

Mr. Justice STRONG delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  13 Stat. at Large, 58.

^2  The 'Rules concerning Lights,' it will be remembered, see supra, pp. 171-2, requires the white light of steamers to be such as shall be visible five miles off; while the colored lights need be visible but two miles off. TAI TABLE

^3  Sir William Scott, in the Carl Johann, referred to in the Dundee, 1 Haggard's Admiralty, 113; Nostra Signora de los Dolores (Lord Stowell), 1 Dodson, 290; The Zollverein (Dr. Lushington), Swabey, 96; Cope v. Doherty (Vice-Chancellor Sir William Page Wood), 4 Kay and Johnson, 367; S.C.., on appeal, 2 De Gex and Jones, 626; The Saxonia (Dr. Lushington, and on appeal to P. C.), 1 Lush. 410; The Chancellor, 4 Law Times, New Series, 627.

^4  The Wild Ranger, 7 Law Times, N. S. 725 and 729; S.C.., 1 Lushington, 553.

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).