Steamboat New York v. Rea/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

59 U.S. 223

Steamboat New York  v.  Rea

This is an appeal in admiralty from a decree of the circuit court of the United States for the southern district of New York.

The libel was filed by the owner of the Brig Sarah Johanna against the steamboat, for a collision in the harbor of the city of New York. The brig was lying at anchor in the North River, off pier No. 6, nearer to the Jersey than the New York shore, her bow heading up the river, there being at the time a strong ebb-tide, and wind heavy from the northwest. The collision occurred between four and five o'clock in the morning of the 4th of November, 1850, the river at this place being filled with vessels at anchor in the vicinity of the brig. The morning considerably dark.

The steamboat was passing down the North River to get round to her berth in the East River. She had in tow eleven heavily loaded barges and canal boats, the first tier being three abreast on each side of her, the other boats astern, towed by lines attached to this first tier. The steamer, with the tows, occupied a breadth of some three hundred feet, and from three hundred and fifty of four hundred feet in length, her bows projecting some sixty feet ahead of the tows. She entered this thicket of vessels, at anchor in the river, at a rate of speed from eight to ten miles an hour, and, as we have seen, with a strong ebb-tide and heavy northwest wind; and, while passing through them, the centre tow-boat of the tier on the starboard side struck the bow of the brig, smashing her timbers, cut-water, and bowsprit, and otherwise doing great damage to the vessel.

The captain of the steamboat admits that he saw the brig from three to five hundred feet off before the collision, but, as he could not stop his boat in less than within ten or fifteen of her lengths, the collision was inevitable. He admits, also, that it would have required all her power to have stopped within that distance, as it would have depended upon the way the tow-boats were managed. The rear tows were not so fastened, he observes, as to prevent their swinging, and could not have been. He gave orders instantly, on discerning the brig, to starboard the helm, and passed the same order to the tow-boats. This was undoubtedly the proper order at the time, under the circumstances, but with the rate of speed of the steamer, and encumbered as she was with her tows, it was unavailing.

Upon this statement of the facts in the case, it is manifest the steamer was grossly in fault in entering this crowd of vessels at anchor in the harbor, at the rate of speed with which she was moving, especially in the night time. A collision with some of them thus lying in her trail was the natural, if not inevitable, result. Lying at anchor, they were disabled from adopting any measure to get out of her way, and encumbered as she was with tows, she was not in a condition to adopt any prompt and effective manoeuvre to avoid the danger. The continuance of the speed, therefore, under the circumstances of wind and tide, and encumbrance and embarrassment of the tows, was the grossest carelessness and neglect of duty, without the semblance of excuse. Indeed, the term carelessness hardly expresses the degree of fault; under the circumstances, it seems almost to have been wilful, or what, in degree, should be regarded as equally criminal.

The steamboat was also in fault in not having a look-out at the time, properly stationed. The captain admits that no person was stationed on the deck as a look-out. He claims to have been on that duty himself, although he stood upon the upper deck, some fifteen feet above the water, and sixty feet from the bow of the steamer, and was at the time engaged in giving directions for the management of her and her tows.

We have had occasion frequently to lay down the rule, that it is the duty of steamboats traversing waters where sailing vessels are often met with, to have a trustworthy and constant look-out, stationed at a part of the vessel best adapted for that purpose, and whose whole business was to discern vessels ahead, or approaching, so as to give the earliest notice to those in charge of the navigation of the vessel; and that the omission, in case of a collision, would be prima facie evidence of fault on the part of the steamer. 12 How. 459; 10 Ib. 585.

It is insisted, however, on the part of the steamboat, that the brig was also in fault, in not showing a light while lying at anchor. We have looked carefully into the evidence on this branch of the case, and are satisfied that the clear weight of it is in favor of the libellants, and that a proper light was kept constantly in the fore-rigging, some seventeen feet above the deck.

Again, it is claimed that, admitting the brig had a light sufficient, within the requirements of the admiralty rule, still, she was in fault in not showing a light, in conformity with the statutes of New York, which required it should be suspended in the rigging, at least twenty feet above deck. 1 Rev. Stats. p. 685, § 12; also Sess. Laws, 1839, p. 322.

This is a rule of navigation prescribed by the laws of New York, and is doubtless binding upon her own courts, but cannot regulate the decisions of the federal courts, administering the general admiralty law. They can be governed only by the principles peculiar to that system, as generally recognized in maritime countries, modified by acts of congress independently of local legislation. The Johanna was a foreign ship, engaged in the general commerce of the country, not in the purely internal trade of a State. The Bark Chusan, 2 Story, 456.

We agree, an exception to this general principle is, the regulation of steamboats and other water-craft in the ports and harbors of the States, which is required for the accommodation and safety of vessels resorting thither in the pursuits of business and commerce. These are police regulations in aid and furtherance of commerce, enacted by the local authorities, who have a knowledge of the wants of the locality, and a deep interest in properly providing for them.

We are satisfied, the decree of the court below is right, and should be affirmed.


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).