The Nacoochee v. Moseley/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

137 U.S. 330

The Nacoochee  v.  Moseley

It is contended for the steamer that she was not guilty of any neglect in going at the rate of speed found. Her full rate of speed was between 13 and 14 knots an hour. When she first overhauled the schooner her speed was between 6 and 7 knots an hour, and she kept up the latter speed until she reversed her engines on suddenly sighting the schooner in the fog, about 500 feet away. At the time this collision took place, the rules of navigation found in section 4233 of the Revised Statute were in force. By rule 15, whenever there was a fog or thick weather, whether by day or night, a sail-vessel under way was required to sound a fog-horn at intervals of not more than five minutes. By rule 20, 'if two vessels, one of which is a sail-vessel, and the other a steam-vessel, are proceeding in such directions as to involve risk of collision, the steam-vessel shall keep out of the way of the sail-vessel.' By rule 21, 'every steam-vessel, when approaching another vessel, so as to involve risk of collision, shall slacken her speed, or, if necessary, stop and reverse; and every steam-vessel shall, when in a fog, go at a moderate speed.' By rule 23, 'where by rules seventeen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-two, one of two vessels shall keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course, subject to the qualifications of rule twenty-four.' By rule 24, 'in construing and obeying these rules, due regard must be had to all dangers of navigation, and to any special circumstances which may exist in any particular case rendering a departure from them necessary in order to avoid immediate danger.'

It is urged on the part of the steamer, that, in determining the question whether her speed was a moderate one in the fog, it is to be considered that she supposed she was on a life-saving errand, and was hastening towards what she thought were cries of distrees, which required her to move as promptly as possible. It is found as a fact that, when running at half speed, as she was, she would forge ahead 600 to 800 feet, after reversing her engines, before beginning to go backwards; and that she had not attained backward motion when she struck the schooner. This, it is contended, was a moderate speed. It is urged that if the master of the steamer thought that the fog was of such a character that he could see a vessel at a distance of about 800 feet, and it turned out that the fog was more dense than he thought it to be, he committed merely an excusable error of judgment, and was not guilty of negligence. But we cannot regard these views as controlling. The steamer was bound to keep out of the way of the schooner, and the burden rests upon her to show a sufficient reason for not doing so. She must be held wholly responsible, unless she shows a fault on the part of the schooner which contributed to the collision, or that it was due to unavoidable accident. The latter is not shown, and it is shown that the steamer was not going at a moderate speed in the fog. It is found that the steamer first sighted the schooner when the latter was about 500 feet distant, and that the fog was dense, and hung low down over the water. The steamer, from her own course and that of the schooner, when the former overhauled and passed the latter, must have known, by the lapse of time before she heard the supposed sounds of distress, that, when she changed her course, by porting, 13 1/2 points, to south-south-east, it was quite likely she would encounter the schooner. She was bound, therefore, to observe unusual caution, and to maintain only such a rate of speed as would enable her to come to a standstill, by reversing her engines at full speed, before she should collide with a vessel which she should see through the fog. This is the rule laid down by this court in the case of The Colorado, 91 U.S. 692, 702, citing The Europa, 2 Eng. Law & Eq. 557, 564, and 14 Jurist, pt. 1, p. 627, and The Batavier, 40 Eng. Law & Eq. 19, 25, and 9 Moore, P. C. 286. The rule laid down in the lastnamed case is that at whatever rate a steamer was going, if she was going at such a rate as made it dangerous to any craft which she ought to have seen, and might have seen, she had no right to go at that rate. See, also, The Pennsylvania, 19 Wall. 125, 134.

The rule is still maintained, and is expressed as follows, in article 16 of section 1 of the act of August 19, 1890, c. 802, entitled 'An act to adopt regulations for preventing collisions at sea:' 'Art. 16. Every vessel shall, in a fog, mist, falling snow, or heavy rain-storms, go at a moderate speed, having careful regard to the existing circumstances and conditions.'

In the present case, the steamer discovered the schooner on her starboard bow, about 500 feet away, looming up in the fog. The speed of the schooner was about 4 knots an hour, and that of the steamer between 6 and 7 knots, the combined rate being over 10 knots an hour, or over 1,000 feet a minute; so that, at a distance apart of 500 feet, the vessels, at the combined speed, were not over half a minute apart. The steamer's engines could be reversed in 12 seconds; but, although they were reversed at full speed astern, she had not attained backward motion when she struck the schooner. This was not the moderate speed required by the statute. During the 12 seconds necessary to reverse the engines, the steamer would progress ahead 200 feet, leaving the distance between the vessels at the time the steamer commenced to back only 300 feet. Both of the courts below found the schooner to be in fault. The fault found by the circuit court was that the schooner was sailing too short-handed in the fog, and was guilty of negligent navigation in having but one man forward, charged with the double duties of a lookout and blowing the fog-horn, and one person astern, a youth of only 20, at the wheel, while all the other 14 men, including the master, were below deck. In addition, it is contended here for the steamer that the schooner was sailing too fast in the fog, and that she kept her course, instead of porting, when she sighted the steamer. It is alleged in the answer of the steamer that the schooner was in fault in not putting her helm hard a-port when the steamer was seen to be within 40 or 50 feet from her; but it is not averred in the answer that the schooner was sailing too fast in the fog. It is, however, alleged in the answer that the schooner was in fault in not having her fog-horn properly sounded; but this latter defense cannot be maintained, because it is found by the circuit court that the officers of the steamer all of them heard the fog-horn of the schooner before they saw her.

It is contended that the schooner could have avoided the collision by porting her helm when she saw the steamer. But it was the primary duty of the schooner, under rule 23, to keep her course; and, when her master was notified of the approach of the steamer, he told the man at the wheel of the schooner to keep his course, and no change was made in her helm up to the very moment of collision. Even if it was an error of judgment in the schooner to hold her course, it was not a fault, being an act resolved upon in extremis, a compliance with the statute, and a maneuver produced by the fault of the steamer. Steam-Ship Co. v. Rumball, 21 How. 372, 383; The Nichols, 7 Wall. 656, 666; The Carroll, 8 Wall. 302, 305; The Elizabeth Jones, 112 U.S. 514, 526, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 468; The Bywell Castle, 4 Prob. Div. 219.

In regard to the alleged fault of the schooner in sailing too short-handed in the fog, and having only two men on deck, one of them forward, charged with the double duties of a lookout and blowing the horn, and one astern at the wheel, it is not found by the circuit court as a fact that the absence of another lookout contributed to the collision, nor are any facts found which cn justify that conclusion, either as fact or law. So far as the findings are concerned, the man forward properly discharged his double duties. He blew the fog-horn, and it was heard on board the steamer, and it is not found that he did not blow it properly, or in accordance with the statute. Nor is it found that he could have performed the duties of a lookout better than he did, or that any different manner of performing those duties, either by him or an additional lookout, could or would have made any difference in the result, or that the steamer would or could have been seen by the schooner any sooner than she was seen. The finding is that the steamer first sighted the schooner when the latter was about 500 feet distant, and the schooner first sighted the steamer when 400 to 500 feet distant. The schooner being low in the water, and the fog hanging low down over the water, it was, of course, denser on the deck of the schooner than it was on the higher deck of the steamer, and those on the steamer naturally would see the masts and sails of the schooner up in the lighterfog before the vision of the lookout on the schooner would penetrate the denser fog which enveloped him. Under all these circumstances, and in view of the actual findings, it cannot be held that there was any lack of vigilance on the part of the schooner in the matter of a lookout. The Farragut, 10 Wall. 334; The Fannie, 11 Wall. 238, 243; The Annie Lindsley, 104 U.S. 185, 191. Nor is there anything in the suggestion that the schooner was sailing too fast. It is not so averred in the answer or found by the circuit court. The exceptions to the refusals of the circuit court to find certain facts cannot be considered, because the testimony is not before us. The Francis Wright, 105 U.S. 381. The exceptions to the refusal to find certain conclusions of law are considered sufficiently in what has been said already. The decree of the circuit court is reversed, and the case is remanded, with a direction to enter a decree for the libelants for the full amount of their damages, with interest from the date of the report of the commissioner in the district court, and for their costs in the district court, and in the circuit court, and in this court, on both appeals.


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).